THOMAS JEFFERSON SAID well over two hundred years ago: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” The media has a vital role to play in ensuring a democracy functions through keeping a watchful eye on the government and business and publicising any wrongdoing: holding them to account, in other words.
Because of its watchdog nature, the way media is treated by the powerful is thus a litmus test for democracy. In South Africa, we are not faring too well. The fourth estate is under attack on all sides. Four glaring trends are emerging, and none of them pose much comfort.
Ignoring/denying evidence uncovered by the media
Sterling investigative work done by titles such as the Mail & Guardian and Noseweek have brought to light government’s shadier activities such as Oilgate, Travelgate and the Arms Deal as well as lesser known (yet equally shocking) examples like the deputy home affairs minister ignoring the chaos at his department, and running a leadership institute with taxpayers’ money instead.
Instead of rooting out the exposed corruption, government merely ignores the revelations, or blankets them in whitewash, obfuscation and denial.
Abuse of public broadcaster
The SABC’s editorial independence has been completely eroded with the installation of ANC yes-men. News reports, whether on the appalling TV channels or on our equally pathetic state-owned radio stations, are brazenly partisan. While SABC and its various outlets should be a service based in the South African public’s interest, it has become little more than an unashamedly propagandistic mouthpiece for government and the ANC.
Legislation against the media
There are signs that government is intent on reigning in the media’s freedom of expression through legislation. The Film and Publications Amendment Bill effectively suggested pre-publication censorship by removal the exemption that the press currently has on classification. In the face of strong opposition from civil society (such as the SA National Editors’ Forum and the Freedom of Expression Institute) and the press itself, the cabinet appears to have backed down somewhat on the original proposals. As yet however, significant changes are yet to occur, and the promised watering down of the bill fails to remove the very real threat freedom of expression faces in South Africa.
Demonisation of editors and papers
When the Daily Dispatch courageously uncovered the shambolic state of Frere Hospital’s maternity unit, the paper’s editor, Phyillica Oppelt, faced a lambasting in ANC Today, the ANC’s weekly newsletter. For revealing the truth, the ruling party accused her of being a sensationalist liar with ulterior motives.
The way Oppelt was victimised is not unique, however. When the press uncovers wrongdoing, the ANC’s kneejerk reaction is to subject editors to hurtful personal attacks and consequently almost every issue of ANC Today contains a diatribe condemning some or other publication. Journalists are singled out and insulted and there is an absence of rationality (and a surfeit of recondite doublespeak) in the way the offending article is dealt with. The ANC’s current target is Barney Mthombothi, editor of the Financial Mail. Another favourite is the Sunday Times editor, Mondli Makhanya, who is facing the music for his paper’s spicy revelations about our health minister. The Business Day is singled out regularly too, while John Simpson’s crime report for the BBC was branded racist a few months ago.
These attacks reveal the ANC’s stifling hypersensitivity and its inability to act positively on criticism. The party hopes that by vilifying those who “speak truth power,” they will force the media into a submissive, unquestioning silence so that government can continue its undemocratic machinations with impunity. They clearly underestimate them.