In the most significant Media Freedom Week since 1994, the South African media is caught in a moral dilemma.
Over the years we have watched the ANC’s power struggles from the outside and analysed and predicted the strengths and weaknesses of the players without much interest in who won (with the few exceptions of those journalists who chose to be embedded in factions).
Suddenly we have been thrust into the media space ourselves and are now active players rather than passive observers of events and trends and we have an interest in who wins the debate on media freedom inside the party.
Although the government and the ANC contend otherwise, it is clear that there is a pattern of events that suggests new thinking that believes that treating the media and the free flow of information as sacrosanct could work against their interests or could be cumbersome in whatever work they want to do.
That is why today the media is having to fight the media tribunal, the Protection of Information Bill and the Film and Publications Act, plus get involved in other related side fights, such as gaining access to a meeting between the SABC and parliamentarians, the arrest of a journalist without cause and the minister of defence deciding willy-nilly to classify information on the president’s travels as a state secret.
Fortunately, there is renewed vigour among journalists and editors to stand up and raise our voices. But now that the story involves us, we have a duty, too, not to get carried away by our emotions on the matter.
We have to report it in as unbiased and neutral a manner as possible. We even have to invite voices that differ with us to write in our newspapers to motivate for the argument for a media tribunal. It is an untenable position.
Having watched how these issues are being raised by components of the ANC’s ruling alliance, it is clear that there are huge divisions even within the ruling elite. And the agreements and disagreements make for interesting alliances.
President Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League president, do not see eye to eye on anything these days, but they share an antipathy towards the media.
Blade Nzimande, the South African Communist Party chief, and Trevor Manuel, the National Planning Minister, would be at the opposite ends of discussions on economic policy for the country, but they share a disdain for our media institutions.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Tokyo Sexwale, the human settlements minister, could be considered competitors for the country’s highest office when Zuma goes, but they share an accommodating stance on the media.
I am convinced that the outcomes announced at the end of the meeting between editors and government in Magaliesburg last weekend, which essentially says the ANC will hold off and not proceed with the media tribunal until the media has completed its own self-regulation review, mostly reflect the deputy president’s — and a few others’ — personal pragmatism.
Jackson Mthembu, the ANC spokesperson, has since the meeting been quoted saying the ANC will not suspend the implementation of its Polokwane resolution (recently endorsed by the national general council) to proceed with investigating the feasibility of a media tribunal.
This creates some confusion, but having attended the Magaliesburg meeting, I am optimistic that, beyond the bare-knuckled, robust exchanges, there was a real desire to move towards constructive engagement.
Even the mostly reserved Siyabonga Cwele, the minister of state security, committed himself to further engagement on the Protection of Information Bill and Jeff Radebe, the justice and constitutional development minister, said he was waiting for the media to have more talks with him on section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act, which is an issue because it compels journalists to disclose their sources.
My point is that we are now at a point where we actually take an interest in internal ANC debates and hope that the rabid militants and those who have much to gain from a closed society are not able to prevail over those who want some kind of sensible outcome.
Such an outcome would allow us to work as freely as we have been doing since 1994 while accommodating the concerns of those who feel we do not adequately provide for them when they are wronged by inaccurate reporting.