Two clashing gazes on reining in media

The ANC must forge ahead with its “investigation” into a media appeals tribunal and hopefully it will discover what a bad idea its implementation would be in South Africa.

The ANC resolved at its national general council this month to proceed with looking into a tribunal. The implementation of a media appeals tribunal would turn South Africa’s mostly robust media into a doormat. The party’s idea is to have a more patriotic media, which would deliver more sunshine and less doom and gloom. In this way, the “logic” proceeds, the image of the country would be enhanced.

The “investigation” into such a tribunal was a resolution at the ANC’s Polokwane policy conference in 2007, but today we are no clearer about what it may entail. However, “investigation” is a curious choice of word: does it mean the ANC does not know what precise form this body would take or how it would be implemented – or perhaps it senses unconstitutionality?

“The media” is not one monolithic body. It appears not to be quite fragmented but rather split into two camps: those who support politically independent media but don’t know how to deal with ownership issues (for instance, Times Media Group, Media 24 and M&G Ltd) and those who support the patriotic sunshine journalism project of the ANC (Independent Newspaper Group, the New Age, ANN7 and the SABC).

The split is not even: journalists working for the different titles do not fit neatly into hermetically sealed little boxes. For instance, there are some journalists at the SABC who prefer to adhere to professional codes and ethics rather than succumb to political pressures, and there are those in the independent media who recently turned towards the voice of power, for instance, the editor of the Citizen. Then there’s the “free-floating” digital and social media.

For the purposes of this article, “the media” refers to those who wish to maintain independence from political parties. They believe in the watchdog role of the media in a democracy, and favour the current co-regulation system under the new Press Council.

I have sympathy for the ANC. Twenty years ago it rode to power on the crest of a moral high wave, taking the majority of us on a euphoric ride with it. Today it is bedevilled by corruption scandals, service delivery issues and a whopping decline in membership. What happens in the post-colony when once-glorious liberation movements start to feel power slipping away? They tend to tighten their reins.

From the ANC’s gaze: if only the media would stop uncovering these scandals and focus on the positives, this country would be a better place. If only they could see the good we are delivering and how hard we are working. If only the media could be “patriotic” and cast the country in a more glowing light. If we reined them in, through a media appeals tribunal, things would be better.

The tribunal is a signifier of the flawed logic that goes as far as this for some: if they stopped reporting on crime, crime rates would fall. It is the media’s fault.

From the media’s gaze: the watchdog role of the media is to hold the powerful accountable for their actions, corruption, public spending and service delivery. The media note the many concessions, which took into account the feelings of the ANC, made during the Press Freedom Commission hearings in 2012 and implemented the subsequent recommendations. The system is now stronger than ever, they argue.

These journalists wish to remain faithful to the Constitution, which supports the free flow of information, as well as to the professional codes of ethics prescribed by the Press Code and supported by the South African National Editors’ Forum. They wish to be accountable to the public and their peers. From this gaze, the media believe, if only the ANC could see that it’s corruption and flawed service delivery that’s causing the problems.

What is a media appeals tribunal? There are media tribunals in China, Zimbabwe and in some African, Eastern European and South American countries. They are all different in form and content. But the common denominator is some state control of media, where journalists are often jailed or “disappear”.

The ANC has told us that such a body would be housed in Parliament and would therefore be “fair”. The answer to this is obvious, when we know that most parliamentarians are ANC members who desire to have ideological hegemony.

What would a tribunal mean? First, it would surely end the system of co-regulation by the Press Council. At present the system includes equal numbers of public and press members, a public advocate, an ombud and an appeals panel. The system works well and rulings are not biased in favour of the media. In fact, most are in favour of political party members and other powerful individuals. In tandem, today we often see apologies splashed on front pages of newspapers instead of hidden away in the inside pages.

Second, a media appeals tribunal would mean the media is ultimately, through Parliament, accountable to the ANC. The party has been waging a battle to be the dominant voice in national public discourse. It fears it is losing the war. Transformation of the media, through a tribunal, is the ultimate solution for the ANC, then – especially with municipal elections around the corner.

Third, reporting on scandals – such as those involving the president and the Nkandla spending, various Gupta shenanigans, the police commissioner and Marikana – would be erased. However, according to the ANC, media would be able to publish all this but post-publication it could face the mighty media appeals tribunal, which would then let you know whether you were fair or not.

At the Press Freedom Commission hearings, a frustrated Jessie Duarte and Jackson Mthembu of the ANC tried to explain to the media that the mooted tribunal was “not about prepublication censorship”. Nonetheless, no one knows what the punishments would be for being “unfair” or what the resulting levels of self-censorship would be.

Speaking personally, if I was still a journalist today I know I would resist being hauled to Parliament for hearings on account of stories I’d written, before hearing what punishment would be meted out to me.

What emerges is a conundrum of the two separate gazes: one inward-looking – let’s protect ourselves and our image – and one outward-looking – let’s disseminate information.

Now what? The ANC must proceed with its investigation into a media appeals tribunal. Hopefully it will return to announce that such a measure would be short-sighted, a mistake and definitely not in the interests of the free flow of information so intrinsic to democracy and already entrenched in the Constitution.

Those countries with media appeals tribunals are shams of democracies. In fact, they are mostly dictatorships, with journalists sitting in jail for doing their job.

Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and a former journalist

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Glenda Daniels
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