Bayanda Mzoneli

About Bayanda Mzoneli

Bayanda Mzoneli is a public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.

Now that the my Perspective on Protection of Information Bill is sealed and delivered, I can write about what I really wanted to write about, the Media Tribunal.

Before I started writing now I just read this by Jarred Cinman (a web developer). I don’t disagree with him.

Most views that have been expressed on this matter seem to have been formulated by people who may have not read the ANC NGC Discussion Document which is readily available on the ANC Website. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, not many people have the patience to read anything which is more than 0.125 pages long.

As you may know, it is common cause on both sides of the argument that freedom of expression is important and necessary for the endurance of democracy. The ANC document admits this fact. Besides, the ANC fought hard for that freedom along with many other non-ANC activists. However, some who are against the tribunal are suspicious that the ANC’s commitment to freedom of expression is not honest. I believe the ANC. (Note that I am not a competent member of the judiciary. I therefore, shall not attempt, to pass judgment on the matters that may be before court regarding arrests of persons)

Tragically there are a few things that those who oppose the Tribunal refuse to admit. Some of these issues are outlined in the ANC NGC Document. Viz.;

“51.  There is no question that the media, as an institution deserves and should be afforded the space to flourish as a critical platform for freedom of expression. The ANC has alw ays fought for media freedom which it believes is a cornerstone for any democracy to flourish. All of us have a responsibility to defend media freedom and editorial independence from any form of compulsion, be it political, economic or commercial.
52. However, independence from such pressures does not presume that journalis ts are unique human beings with unique journalistic genes and genealogy. They are impacted upon by the environment within which they operate, by the circumstances that spaw n them.
53. The media is a contested terrain and therefore not neutral, but reflects the ideological battles and power relations based on race, class and gender in our society. It cannot claim that its role is merely to reflect interests – rather it helps to shape those interests. In other words, print and electronic journalists are not passive transmitters – a clean slate – on w hom events imprint themselves.
54. The media are not merely reflective of w hat readers, viewers and listeners want. They do have values and choices which help to shape social preferences. Despite the media’s limited direct reach, they occupy an important position to facilitate or to serve as a break on social transformation.
55. It would be to relegate the media to a status of social irrelevance to demand that journalists should have absolute freedom – only the inconsequential in social processes have a semblance of absolute freedom. Media as an institution is not a victim w aiting to be abused. It is a repository of immense
ideological, economic, social and political power”

These facts are consistent with an argument that is often invoked by the media when convenient that says, “the media is not homogeneous.” This argument is usually used to absolve a certain media house from being attacked with another which may have faulted. Therefore there is some level of agreement about the reality the media is not immune to societal ills. The question then becomes, “What is to be done?”

The ANC admits that there are institutions, setup and funded by the media, that are suppose to provide recourse for those who may be aggrieved by the media. Perhaps the least stated, if it is ever stated, reality of such institutions is the deficiency of their sanctions. The South African Press Code is enforced by the Press Ombudsman. It’s Part B that covers sanctions have this to say about what is to be done about those found guilty of contravening it;

“5.2.1Caution or reprimand a respondent;
5.2.2 Direct that a correction, retraction or explanation and, where appropriate, an apology and/or the findings of the SAPOM or SAPAP be published by the respondent in such manner as may be determined by the SAPOM or the SAPAP, as the case may be.
5.2.3 Order that a complainant’s reply to a published article, comment or letter be published by the respondent;
5.2.4 Make any supplementary or ancillary orders or issue directives that are considered necessary for carrying into effect the orders or directives made in terms of this clause and, more particularly, issue directives as to the publication of the findings of SAPOM and/or SAPAP.”

There you have it. The maximum sentence for punishing those who spell your name wrong or those who may tell lethal lies about you. You don’t get anything more than that from the Press Ombudsman. Imagine what you’d do if the maximum sentence for anything you do is to apologise. At least those opposing the Tribunal should have the decency to admit that these measure are grossly inadequate and go ahead to make alternative suggestions if they don’t like the Tribunal. Until then, the ANC has to proceed with bringing the matter to parliament after the 2010 NGC.

Some attribute this to the current leadership of the ANC that they perceive as unhappy about how the media reports about it. Besides that the people in the current leadership of the ANC have been there for more than 20 years, I checked what President Mandela had to say on the matter. In his Political Report to the 50th ANC National Conference in Mafikeng in 1997, he said;

“Similarly, we have to confront the fact that during the last three years, the matter has become perfectly clear that the bulk of the mass media in our country has set itself up as force opposed to the ANC.

In a manner akin to what the National Party is doing in its sphere, this media exploits the dominant positions it achieved as a result of the apartheid system, to campaign against both real change and the real agents of change, as represented by our movement, led by the ANC.

In this context, it also takes advantage of the fact that, thanks to decades of repression and prohibition of a mass media genuinely representative of the voice of the majority of the people of South Africa, this majority has no choice but to rely for information and communication on a media representing the privileged minority.

To protect its own privileged positions, which are a continuation of the apartheid legacy, it does not hesitate to denounce all efforts to ensure its own transformation, consistent with the objectives of a non-racial democracy, as an attack on press freedom.

When it speaks against us, this represents freedom of thought, speech and the press – which the world must applaud!

When we exercise our own right to freedom of thought and speech to criticise it for its failings, this represents an attempt to suppress the freedom of the press -for which the world must punish us!

Thus the media uses the democratic order, brought about by the enormous sacrifices of our own people, as an instrument to protect the legacy of racism, graphically described by its own patterns of ownership, editorial control, value system and advertiser influence.

At the same time, and in many respects, it has shown a stubborn refusal to discharge its responsibility to inform the public.

Consistent with the political posture it has assumed, it has been most vigorous in disseminating such information as it believes serves to discredit and weaken our movement. By this means, despite its professions of support for democracy, it limits the possibility to expand the frontiers of democracy, which would derive from the empowerment of the citizen to participate meaningfully in the process of governance through timeous access to reliable information.

I know that these comments will be received with a tirade of denunciation, with claims that what we are calling for is a media that acts as a “lapdog” rather than a “watchdog”.

We must reiterate the positions of our movement that we ask for no favours from the media and we expect none. We make no apology for making the demand that the media has a responsibility to society to inform.

Neither do we doubt the correctness of our assessment of the role the media has played in the last three years. All of us know too much about what happens in the newsrooms.”

Note that this is written after 3 years of democracy. About 10 years later, the successive ANC and State President, Cde Thabo Mbeki wrote, among others;

“In this situation of an inevitable contest about the future of our country, information, facts, the truth, themselves become an area of contestation. The truth manifests itself as truths. Opponents of change see it as their obligatory task to falsify reality, in their interest. The imperative to understand the critical difference, and in some instances the contradiction, between essence and phenomenon becomes ever-more pressing.”

The argument about the current ANC leadership departing from a certain standard falls flat on its face. In fact the proposal of the Tribunal shows the determination of the current leadership to do more than just moan about the challenges in the media.

Perhaps it is time the debate moved from “whether” to “when” and “how” Those who continue to be stuck on “whether” run the risk of being overtaken by events.

It is also interesting how the debate on the ANC NGC discussion has persistently overlooked a whole section of the document that identifies challenges of ownership patterns in the media. I would hate to attribute this to media owners focusing on the Tribunal as a way to avoid the discussion on ownership. My suspicion is that even some of those that oppose the Tribunal may be agreeing on the suggestion of Establishment of the Media Charter as outlined in the ANC NGC Document. They could be missing an opportunity by being myopic.

Just like Cde Mandela, “I know that these comments will be received with a tirade of denunciation, with claims that what we are calling for is a media that acts as a “lapdog” rather than a “watchdog”.

“We must reiterate the positions of our movement that we ask for no favours from the media and we expect none. We make no apology for making the demand that the media has a responsibility to society to inform.”

I pause

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