The fine art of perfecting propaganda
The government plans to create a department of information after the elections, but it’s not yet clear what form the new ministry will take.
We know, however, that it will swallow the duties of several government departments and the agencies already shaping the state’s message, such as the Government Communication and Information System and BrandSA.
Sources told the Mail & Guardian last week that several possibilities are being considered, with the Russian, Chinese, Zimbabwean and United States models seen as the most appropriate.
The ruling ANC complains that the media is too negative and does not acknowledge its successes. But state organs have widened their reach, with the radio station Ubuntu, magazines and websites dedicated to disseminating the government’s story.
This is in addition to the operations of the SABC, which is repeatedly accused of not being critical of the government. In fact, its acting chief executive, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, told the M&G last year that he wanted the SABC to have 70% of “sunshine news”.
This is in line with the way Chinese media organisations operate.
The Guardian reported that some have been set a quota of only 30% negative news. In China, control of the media is strict. The New York Times has said that editors are called to meetings with state officials and told how to report on issues.
The central propaganda department there is an integral part of the state, and its internal and external wings are headed by senior party figures. Its address and phone numbers are secret. Its largest platform is China Central Television, which is state-owned.
The rapid growth of the internet has challenged censorship but media reports have estimated that 30 000 online censors are employed, working to supplement the restrictive firewalls already in place.
The Russian model began in the heady days of communism, when propaganda was integral to the working of the state. Today, the country has a much more public international propaganda campaign, mainly through the internationally available television channel, Russia Today. It is based in the same offices as the state broadcaster and reports to the Kremlin, according to an investigation by Der Spiegel. It was established to compete with global channels such as CNN to give the Russian side of the story on issues such as the events in Ukraine.
Editors of state newspapers are invited to meetings with the president to discuss what type of coverage to give issues. Although there are more than a thousand television companies, few channels cover the whole country and all of these are state-owned. Radio is similar; of the 500 radio stations, 143 are state- or municipal-owned.
In the Zimbabwean model, the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation is the primary way of pushing the official state line. Independent media observers have described its work as “pure propaganda”. Opposition newspapers have also been closed down and are failing in the poor economic climate.
The United States has the most oblique model, with complete autonomy for the media. But leading up to its invasion of Iraq, the government whipped up nationalistic fervour through the media and, as in the case of Judith Miller of the New York Times, gave journalists unsubstantiated information that pushed public thinking towards war.
The current South African model is not crudely aimed at propaganda. The GCIS releases information about government events and hosting of the media. But the proposed propaganda department could change this, particularly with the Protection of State Information Bill awaiting the president’s signature.
Whatever model the ANC chooses, it is likely to be challenged by the protection that freedom of speech and the media enjoy under the Constitution.