How the ANC can break the press impasse

The cock that crows in the morning belongs to one household, but his voice is the property of the neighbourhood. This proverb, cited by the author Chinua Achebe, applies perfectly to the press.

For South Africa right now, it resonates with the way that our elected “neighbourhood” officials feel themselves to be justified in trying to regulate the rooster.

Private property (the newspapers) and unfettered free speech have a public character, fooling the ruling party into feeling that it is entitled to intrude into those spaces.

Worse, with the Protection of Information and the Media Appeals Tribunal, the African National Congress (ANC) seems to want to shut the bird up entirely. The party evidently regards raucous crowing as an unwelcome noise that disturbs the public and distracts from their projects.

Yet its control-oriented steps have unleashed an even greater cacophony. So where to from here for the ruling party?

Many South Africans would likely go along with an ANC quest to suppress the press. That’s not because citizens value being in a state of slumber — who would want to live in a silent darkness in which all manner of thieves can thrive?

Rather, the reason why voters won’t oppose the ANC for its mistaken proposals is because they trust the ANC to generally do what is right. Problems in the party are taken as being aberrant detractions from its overall (albeit mixed) performance in improving life for the masses.

As a result, when the ANC conceives a truly problematic proposal like the media tribunal, the basic loyalty kicks into action. First, there’s a widespread and intuitive denial that the initiative is in any way problematic. Second, there’s defensive anger at both the criticism and the critics.

When international bodies condemn these steps as press repression, a sense of righteous patriotism adds to the existing defensiveness.

Such hardline responses, however, make it hard for the ANC to move to a stage of acceptance that the tribunal idea is simply a bad one. Yet it is also becoming more and more clear that the party needs accept that it’s time to step back from tribunal talk.

What is now abundantly evident is that the people who revived the tribunal proposal gravely underestimated the extent of the antipathy this would evoke. Had things been better foreseen, the obvious calculation would have been that this ain’t a clever fight to pick.

With the row now ongoing, the ANC leadership can decide to defy what some may see as reactionaries and/or as global capital trying to curtail “transformation”. However, that route patently loses allies domestically, while internationally it can only lead eastwards. The President has indeed been visiting China this week, but Chinese investment won’t compensate for Western alienation, certainly not in the medium-term.

In short, pursuing the proposed media controls serves only to complicate the ANC’s ability to keep delivering to its support base. The party could persist and win the media battle, but a bigger “war” will then definitely be lost. The press will be permanently alienated; the billions spent on re-imaging via the World Cup forever squandered.

What then for those ANC people — even members who support the idea of the Tribunal — who now realise that this is one contest that is not worth the candle.

How do they find a way to retire the tribunal? First — they should fall back on their strength. There is no shame in acknowledging a mistake. And a withdrawal would not lose the ANC political support amongst its constituency.

Second, the ANC should consider doing the following to end the impasse:

  • Foreground the stated problems that the Tribunal was intended to address, and discuss these — not the tribunal “solution”,
  • Publicly remind those ANC members who treat the tribunal as already decided upon, that it is an old resolution calling for an investigation which is also now up for revision,
  • Decide at the coming ANC conference to drop the idea of parliament as the appropriate body to investigate the ills that for which a tribunal was presented as the prescription. A probe by any state body will only perpetuate the suspicion and the controversy. Instead, the ANC conference should resolve for the party to conduct the study itself,
  • Ensure that any such investigation is rigorous and empirical in identifying what the ANC existing discussion document designates as “problems”. This needs to go beyond the generalisations and unsubstantiated rhetoric currently in the document,
  • Acknowledge openly when the ANC’s own investigation reveals — as it must — that there are many non-tribunal ways to improve the quality of journalism,
  • Acknowledge openly when the study reveals — as it must — that introducing a statutory tribunal for the press would require nothing less than changing the Constitution,
  • Recall that the party has consistently committed itself to the constitutional clauses on free speech and media freedom,
  • Conclude that the tribunal proposal will not fly, and invite the press to engage in talks about other issues like ownership, ethics and improved self-regulation. They will find a willing partner,

In this way, the tribunal time-bomb will have been defused. There will still likely be some residual fears about ANC media policy, but over time the significant damage that has been done to reputation and relations can be repaired.

At that point, the “neighbourhood council” can then be hailed for doing the right thing. And for its part, the public can continue to count on being alerted by media roosters heralding the pleasures of the daylight.

  • This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author. Disclosure: the author is head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University which hosted the WJEC.
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