Sun Oct 23 08:28:20 CAT 2016

SA media - lapdog or watchdog

By unknown | Oct 19, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

As South Africa this week commemorates the 30th anniversary of the banning of the World and Weekend World by the apartheid regime, several questions have been raised about the government's commitment to press freedom.

As South Africa this week commemorates the 30th anniversary of the banning of the World and Weekend World by the apartheid regime, several questions have been raised about the government's commitment to press freedom.

Addressing an International Press Institute congress in 1994, a few months before the ANC was voted into power, Nelson Mandela said: "A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.

"It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen.

"It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials."

Mandela went on to say: "I have often said that the media are a mirror through which we can see ourselves as others perceive us; warts, blemishes and all.

"The ANC has nothing to fear from criticism. I can promise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our view that such criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people's expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe."

Once the ANC was in power, a constitution that entrenched press freedom, was adopted, moving South Africa from an era where the National Party used the media as propaganda for its racist policies to an era when the media was "ideally" allowed to act in the public interest and hold the government accountable.

Unfortunately tensions did arise between the ANC government and the media. For example, in 1996 Mandela launched a scathing attack on black journalists, accusing them of being part of a white plot to undermine the ANC. The gist of his argument was that black journalists working for white-owned media were scared of losing their jobs and were prepared to write whatever their anti-ANC masters told them.

Not surprisingly, black journalists were miffed by Mandela's lack of confidence in their professional integrity. They were also unhappy that he seemed to believe no black person of integrity could have a point of view at odds with the ANC.

These tensions have continued during President Thabo Mbeki's tenure. Largely the ANC's criticism is that the media is not effectively informing and empowering most ordinary people to play a role in building a democratic society. Instead, the media seems hellbent on discrediting the government.

In 2001 Teresa Lindstedt, a student of journalism and multi-media in Sweden, conducted research on the role of media in South Africa.

She interviewed several personalities, including political commentators, journalists, academics and ANC members.

She also accessed speeches by senior ANC members including Mbeki, Pallo Jordan, chief strategist Joel Netshitenzhe and spokesman Smuts Ngonyama.

Lindstedt concluded there were different ideas about the role the media should play in relation to the state and society.

She argued that the media was influenced by both the libertarian and development approach to what it sees as its role in a new South Africa.

She wrote: "The opinion differs between interviewees. Some see contribution as their biggest challenge while others argue that the role of the media is the same in every society.

What this means is that they believe the media must play a watchdog role, but also contribute towards nation-building by informing people about the country's progress.

Lindstedt's conclusion is also important when dealing, for example, with the recent government reaction to the Sunday Times story on Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. The reaction smacks of paying lip service to its commitment to a watchdog media - while actually expecting a lapdog media.

The challenge for both the media and the government is to find a balance.

Such a balance will mean the government must eschew the notion that the media is unpatriotic and bent on undermining it.

Appealing to racial sympathy can only undermine efforts to develop a uniquely South African approach to the role the media should play and transcends the fundamentalist approach to developmental journalism.

lState We're In will return next week.


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