The ANC government is again threatening to punish newspapers it sees as hostile to it, by means of an advertising squeeze, and to reward loyalist media through the transfer of adspend in their direction.
As a matter of editorial ethical consideration, and beyond the ethics of the advertising itself, editors should care less about who advertises in their papers. But this is not just a commercial dispute regarding the advertising pie; it’s about the government’s attitude towards a free, critical press. Echoing earlier threats by Thabo Mbeki’s then right-hand man Essop Pahad, the government’s spokesperson at the time, Jimmy Manyi, bluntly admitted in 2011 that the rationale for centralising government adspend was to reward good behaviour.
This week, the Mail & Guardian reports that the ANC’s national executive committee has revived this execrable idea. It amounts to clamping down on the press by subterfuge. In 2011, the beneficiary of redirected government adspend was to be the New Age, the proprietors of which had declared their allegiance to the ruling party.
Two years later, the beneficiary is likely to be Independent Newspapers, the owner of which has not hidden his loyalty to the ruling party – and which, at least, has a wider reach as a group than the New Age.
There is nothing wrong with the government reviewing its adspend on the basis of sound business principles, such as the finance minister’s need to decrease government expenditure, or if it’s not getting value for its money. But it is sheer abuse of power if such actions are driven by the ANC’s resentment of, or political differences with, the media.
We don’t want to patronise the ANC by reminding it of the role of a free press in a democracy. After all, the party fought fiercely to ensure that freedom of expression and freedom of the media were entrenched in the Constitution as justiciable rights. It was mostly the alternative press, such as this newspaper, that risked the wrath of the apartheid regime to give voice to banned and silenced persons and organisations, including the ANC.
In February 1994 Nelson Mandela, who was then the ANC president, said: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.” Further, he told the International Press Institute: “It is only such a free press that can … relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.”
The media, and especially the M&G, have been a watchdog, exposing the excesses of the powerful and calling them to account. This is a key check on power. We don’t expect any adspend reward, but we don’t deserve to be punished either.
The ANC’s apparently punitive attitude reminds us of governments that ban newspapers for speaking too much truth to power. It should not forget that any particular government is but a temporary bearer of state authority – and must not abuse public funds for party political ends. Conflating government, state and party always leads to abuse. The funds the government funnels to its favourites while trying to suffocate its critics are, after all, taxpayers’ money.