/ 6 February 2021

Media must act against its rogues

Minister Zweli Mkhize Conducts An Inspection Of Health Facilities At King Dinuzulu Hospital
Keep it clean: Claims of impropriety against the media, such as those made at the Zondo commission, only serve to increase the appetite of those wanting to curb its freedoms. (Darren Stewart/Gallo Images)

“Journalism can never be silent. That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” These are the words of Henry Anatole Grunwald, a former editor of Time magazine, which came to my mind this past week as I listened with horror to the evidence led before the Zondo commission by our spymasters. 

The revelations were horrifying, not only because of the sums of cash involved but because of the proximity of some of the media in wrongdoing at the State Security Agency. The evidence led at the commission has opened a can of worms regarding ethics and the debate about the regulatory architecture of the media is likely to re-emerge. 

At its 2007 national conference in Polokwane, the ANC was adamant that South Africa needed a statutory mechanism that would regulate media and this led to calls for a controversial media appeals tribunal that would have more teeth to bite where media transgression was concerned. At the ANC’s 2010 national general council in Durban this matter received further attention based on the party’s frustrations with the media and how it conducted itself. 

It is ironic that the ANC itself is now at the centre of controversy involving spies and the media. The party has long argued that the current press ombudsman system has serious limitations, citing its perceived bias towards the media and recommending that it should be replaced with a more robust one in the form of a tribunal that would be a creature of legislation, as is the case in Botswana, for example. 

The second reasoning, advanced by the governing party in its 2017 policy documents on Communications and the Battle of Ideas, is that the current system is expensive and therefore unacceptable to the “masses” and that it continues to tilt the balance in favour of the media, which has resources to fight for itself in cases of litigation. 

The ombudsman system was introduced soon after the first democratic elections and an overhaul of the then Press Council, which had been set up to prevent the apartheid government imposing its a statutory structure and the registration of journalists, wrote Raymond Louw, who chaired the Press Council. After 1994, media and union representatives examined the code of conduct applying to the Press Council. “One of the founding principles was self-regulation.” 

The code was changed to remove clauses “applying to apartheid policies” and “shaped to comply with the constitution and, especially, the constitutional freedom of the media and freedom of expression clauses”.

In 2017, the ANC’s chairperson of the communications subcommittee, Jackson Mthembu, the minister in the presidency who died recently, said the party’s position on the proposed media appeals tribunal had not changed.

In its 2017 policy documents, the party’s position on the media and the print media in particular, said: “Media is a site of struggle. It must be regarded as robust and potentially hostile or at least critical, taking a position against the ANC. The ANC must recognise this and win the media over with our narrative and recognise the need to commit resources to managing the relationship between the organisation and the media. There must be an emphasis on media responsibility rather than accountability.” 

On issues of journalism and training the document reads: “Media practitioners and professionals’ training must be prioritised. Journalism curriculum must be reviewed, it must be informed by contextual reflection to ensure that training meets the needs of the country and of the changing media environment.” 

What these sentiments and the ANC’s policy proposals point to is discomfort with the power the media wields in society and its perceived posture towards the ruling party. 

Claims of media impropriety such as those made at the Zondo commission can only serve to increase the appetite of some in the party to advance arguments for more stringent regulatory mechanisms. 

Although these statements (made under oath) are yet to be proven, the media must act swiftly on the testimony before the Zondo commission. The South African National Editors Forum should do all it can to follow up on these claims to safeguard the media’s integrity. An allegation of bad ethical behaviour should be enough to trigger action by the media to do some serious soul searching. 

It is not for the first time that such allegations are made against the media. If left unattended they have the potential to undermine the industry, give currency to the “Stratcom” defence when some politicians are found to be in the wrong and give credence to the “fake news” deflection strategy made popular by a certain former president. 

Second, it is perhaps the right time for us to open a discussion about the need for journalists to declare their interests, just as judges and parliamentarians do. Journalists wield a lot of power and that power cannot be left unchecked. Just as the country cannot afford to have judges receiving envelopes filled with cash, our democracy will not be advanced when we have journalists receiving piles of cash from politicians or spies. 

Newsrooms, like judges’ chambers, must be spaces that the public can trust. Any whiff of corruption is enough to threaten our democracy. Those sitting in newsrooms should not be allowed to use their privilege to fight party political battles. 

Last, we have to pursue the big discussion about the regulatory space and take a decision on whether we keep the current system as it is, modify it so that it addresses whatever loopholes there are or whether we want a complete overhaul and to replace it with a statutory entity along the lines of a tribunal. Or do we perhaps want a blend of systems that takes into account our political past while being mindful of the post-1994 dispensation? 

We must be mindful of our past in so far as it relates to press freedom and how this freedom was linked with broader political participation. What this points to is a need for a fine balance that can ensure accountability and ethical conduct on the part of the media while also allowing it the space to function without undue statutory hindrance. 

To paraphrase the words of Grunwald, journalism cannot be silent. It has to speak out against rogues in its ranks in the same way that it speaks out against elected officials who steal from the public purse. It must do so while the signs of horror are still in the air. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.