Defend and Advance the Freedom of Expression for All!
AIDC Statement on the threats to Press Freedom
Press Freedom is a right enjoyed by a privileged minority of South Africans. Our print media is controlled by a cartel of four corporations. Broadcast Media is dominated by the SABC. The profiteering of private media and commercialization of the SABC have seen the mass media catering to the expression and information needs of lucrative markets (LSM 8- 10) representing under 15% of South Africans.
Rather than striving to extend the freedoms of expression and access to information to all South Africans, the ANC government is perusing a series of reforms that will further curtail these freedoms:
- The Protection of Information Bill allows every organ of state - from government departments and parastatals to the smallest municipality - to throw a blanket of secrecy over its documents. If the law is passed whistle blowers leaking, and journalists reporting, on these documents can face up to 25 years in jail;
- The ICASA Amendment Bill gives the Minster of Communications powers to determine the functions of individual ICASA councilors and to conduct performance appraisals of councilors;
- The Public Service Broadcasting Bill narrows the social mandate of community and public broadcasters to serve the "developmental goals of the Republic" and extends the powers of the Minister of Communications over the SABC and municipal officials over community radio;
- The proposed Media Appeals Tribunal will introduce formal censorship to print media limiting the role of the media in ensuring transparent and accountable government.
The economic crisis and the rise of conservative authoritarianism
These threats to the media freedom signal the growing influence of conservative authoritarianism in our body politic. We have witnessed various expressions of this including the attempts by some traditional leaders, through the House of Traditional Leaders, to revive the apartheid era social, political and economic control of the country-side through the post-apartheid legislation that is ironically built on the tribal authorities, tribal boundaries and other undemocratic foundations of the hated Black Authorities Act of 1951; the ongoing violence against women, the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs’ efforts to censor the internet, rising xenophobia, the use of state violence against community protests, the City of Cape Town turning on a corruption whistle-blower by freezing his salary, and the ‘Scorpions’ style arrest of Sunday Times journalist, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, designed to intimidate the media.
The rise of conservative authoritarianism can best be understood against the backdrop of South Africa’s deepening economic crisis. South Africa is the most unequal society in the world (the richest 10% of South Africans take home 54.4% of all household income while the poorest 50% share only 8.3% of household income). In the past year we have lost over 1 000 000 jobs. In the past six months 232,000 people lost their jobs. It is conservatively estimated that every worker supports 5 dependants, so it is safe to say that more than a million South Africans have lost their primary source of income this year alone.
The majority of South Africans are understandably worried and look to their leaders and the media for explanation and direction. Rather than addressing the causes of the crisis and debating alternative economic polices, political leaders and the commercialized media fall back on populism/sensationalism intended to distract and entertain rather than facilitate a meaningful public discussion on the future of our country. Both political leaders and the media offer scapegoats. The commercial media gives us ‘corrupt politicians’ and ‘greedy trade unions’ while political leaders add the ‘unpatriotic media’ to the list.
The tendency towards greater conservative authoritarianism must also be understood in the context of the battle between various factions and groups fighting for influence in the ruling party and the state. Many of these groups see the state as an avenue for the primitive accumulation of wealth while few have a more pro-poor agenda. The ‘alliance of the wounded’ cobbled together pre-Polokwane, is weakening, and its fissures rupturing. The mass media has become a battle ground for these groups as regular leaks expose the kleptomaniacal tendencies of aspirant comprador capitalists.
Sections of the ANC and SACP leadership, unable to maintain organizational discipline, have turned on the media with proposals to censor and punish reporting on corruption. The vast majority of reports focusing on the personal and business lives of public figures are undoubtedly in the public interest. It is disappointing that so few of these reports are given the appropriate attention on the public broadcaster.
On Media Monopolies, Diversity, and 16 years of Neo-liberalism
South Africa’s democracy requires a diverse media that facilitates free expression and the access to information in the interests of the working class and the poor. Instead, ‘media freedom’ in South Africa amounts to a print media controlled by four big companies (one Irish owned), a public broadcaster controlled by competing political elites, and a array of community and small commercial media projects with little hope of meaningful sustainability.
The ANC, despite various progressive conference resolutions, have failed to diversify the South African media. Sixteen years of neo-liberal ANC government policies have resulted in the consolidation of private media monopolies and the commercialization of public and community broadcasting.
The policy emphasis on market profitability has ensured that all media (commercial, public, community) orientate their editorial and programming to meeting the needs and addressing the anxieties of a tiny (largely urban and wealthy) section of the population. This competition for a limited audience has driven a uniformity of content where media strive not to offend but to affirm the prejudices of South Africa’s urban and rural elite.
Government under funding of the SABC and the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) coupled with tax, trade and competition policy have restricted media diversity and promoted the greater concentration of commercial media ownership as companies position themselves to expand into Africa – challenging the diversity of media elsewhere.
Sixteen years of neo-liberalism have also impacted newsrooms across our media. The drive to generate income and maximize profit has seen the cutting of editorial budgets resulting in fewer less experienced media workers with greater workloads. This undermines the capacity of the media workers to undertake investigative reporting and makes them increasingly reliant on press statements and sources provided by South African’s expansive corporate and government public relations industry. The consolidation and profiteering of media monopolies (commercial and public) has also meant that syndication plays a greater role in media production. South Africans can read tens of newspapers or listen to many radio stations only to receive the same version of a story produced by a news agency or centralized SABC newsroom.
In as far as they under fund our country’s newsrooms, media owners also pose a threat to our freedom of expression and access to information.
Call to Defend & Advance the Freedom of Expression for All!
The right of free expression and the right to dignity are indivisible. The right of free expression and access to information are enabling rights at the foundation of our democracy. The ‘people shall not govern’ if they have are not informed and cannot express their views. There can be no meaningful development or service delivery responsive to the needs of the people without the freedom of expression and information.
AIDC calls on the ANC and the ANC government to:
1. Implement the Polokwane resolutions calling for greater funding for the SABC and the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) to ensure that public and community media can serve the public interest free of commercial pressures. This should include a Media Diversity Tax on commercial media;
2. Remove the censorious Protection of Information Bill from Parliament before it is challenged in the Constitutional Court.
3. Redraft the ICASA Amendment and the Public Service Broadcasting Bill ensuring the Minister of Communications and municipalities to not exercise undue control over community and public broadcasting;
4. Abandon the proposed legislated Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) and work with the commercial media to ensure that the Press Ombudsman and BCCSA have the necessary resources and credibility to perform their prescribed role with speed and greater balance. They should also have powers to fine media houses they find have intentionally violate their Codes of Ethics;
5. Pursue anti-trust legislation to break up the monopoly ownership of commercial media;
6. Take disciplinary action against members and officials accused of bribing or threatening journalists.
We call on all South Africans – trade unions and social movements in particular – to intensify the struggle to defend and advance the freedom of expression and access to information for all South Africans. Media Freedom is in everyone’s interests. An informed and active majority is the ultimate insurance against authoritarianism and the abuse of power.
The majority of South Africans, poorly served by the current private and public media monopolies, must unite to forge a media democracy movement with the strength to defend the freedom of expression and demand a diversified media that sees the flourishing of alternative and democratic community controlled print and broadcast media.
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Issued by the Alternative Information Development Centre (AIDC). AIDC is a social justice NGO that produces alternative knowledge and works to build institutional capacity of community media projects and the communication capacity of progressive civil society.
Read AIDC’s Amandla! magazine (www.amandla.org.za)