African National Congress (Johannesburg)

13 August 2010

South Africa: Let the Real Media Debate Begin

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Photo: AllAfrica
Local and foreign media are criticizing South Africa's ruling African National Congress.

A letter from the President of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, carried on the party's website:

Sixteen years after freedom, South Africa's young and fragile democracy continues to mature and has surpassed that of some of the world's most developed democracies. The features and strength of any democracy is amongst others, robust and open debate, without fear and prejudice.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, (Act 108 of 1996), has a Bill of Rights, which amongst others guarantees the freedom of the media and expression.

As the ANC, we worked hard to get this clause into the Constitution and with good reason. We firmly believe that the media must be allowed to do its work freely and without fear or prejudice, within the context of the Constitution and the law. Nothing must be done by government or any authority to undermine or erode these fundamental rights.

While recognising the role that the media plays in a democracy such as ours, this role must be understood within the context of strengthening our country's human rights culture and promoting the values enshrined in our Constitution. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa is the supreme law of the land, and serves as a guide to all of us, including the media. We must all operate and function within its letter and spirit.

The critical question to ask is what is the role of the media in the promotion of our country's human rights culture and the Bill of Rights? Does it have a role in promoting nation building? Does it have a role to play in the promotion of the country's prosperity, stability and the well-being of its people? Is it a spectator, or does it have vested interests and an agenda, political and commercial, that it cherishes and promotes?

I have observed and have been following the debate on the ANC proposal to have parliament investigate the desirability of establishing the Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) with keen interest. I must state from the onset that I am astounded by the commentaries and opinion pieces written by some within the media fraternity and within the society broadly, in reaction to this important debate. Some suggest that the establishment of the MAT is meant to settle scores. Others still suggest that this is an attempt by the ruling party to control and bulldoze the media using the tactics of apartheid regime.

To even suggest that the ANC and its government could have any similarities to the apartheid regime is not only preposterous, it is also disingenuous and an unbearable insult. Arguments that the ANC wants to muzzle the print media is premised on a falsehood that the ruling party, the ANC has no ethics, morals and values and that it does not want the media to expose some of its cadres when they are in trouble with the law, including corruption.

We will not dwell on refuting these arguments. All right thinking and properly informed people know that it is the ANC democratic government that has made it fashionable to fight corruption, and even to talk about fighting corruption. We have a big arsenal of instruments to fight corruption within the State, and these are performing their functions very effectively and the positive results of these are there for all who are willing to see them to see.

Other than law enforcement agencies, we have Chapter 9 institutions such as the Public Protector, South African Human Rights Commission, Auditor General and others, managed by highly capable and distinguished men and women. We are very proud of their work.

Unfortunately, it is the misleading and over-defensive arguments by some media practitioners and their supporters that have muddied what would have ordinarily been a productive and a necessary debate within the context of our Constitution.

The time has come for the real debate to begin. Let us move away from the hysteria and dwelling on individual experiences. Let us look at the issues and the state of the media in South Africa as an institution that claims to be the watchdog of South African society.

The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian? All institutions, even parliament has mechanisms in place to keep them in check. Almost all professions have similar mechanisms from teachers to architects, doctors, engineers, politicians, lawyers and others.

This is based on the principle that in practising their rights and doing their jobs, these professionals may trample on the rights of others and the victims must have recourse through legitimate institutions. The starting point is that media owners and media practitioners cannot claim that this institution is totally snow white and without fault. They cannot claim that the media products we have in our country today, adequately reflect the lives and aspirations of all South Africans, especially the poor.

Can a guardian be a proper guardian when it does not reflect the society it claims to protect and represent?

They cannot claim that there is a diversity of ownership, content and staffing within the newsrooms. When a person from ku-Qumbu in the Transkei opens a newspaper in the morning, does he or she see himself or herself in it? Is it a mirror of his or her life - past, present and future.

For instance, South Africans rebelled against the media in June-July this year, united in their diversity. When the gloom and doom dominated news reportage over many months, they decided to defy the chorus of division and negativity and projected the type of society they want to be, and how they want to be viewed by the world. That is one 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament lesson that the media has not yet realised or that they are choosing to pretend it did not happen.

Let us move beyond the hysteria, let the real debate begin. Our first point is that before looking at what they regard as external threats and perceived external threats, the media should conduct introspection first. During our State visit to Russia a week ago, Russian television was running a promotional jingle saying: "How dependent is the independent media? Who pays for the news?"

We also have every right to look at other pressures facing journalists, which make them compromise quality of their stories. The media is a business enterprise. Its primary issue is to make a profit. The media products must make money and be commercially viable. Press freedom and the like are noble principles, but we all know that what drives the media is money, like all businesses.

There is fierce competition to increase circulation figures in order to boost advertising. This puts many editors under constant pressure from media owners. They do not talk about this in public. They talk about press freedom and perceived potential external threats to it from government, the ruling party and not threats from commercial interests.

Therefore, the debate about "who pays for the news" must also be opened, in a constructive manner. Are editors under pressure to sell their papers and to increase their circulation figures at whatever cost, including at times relying on unchecked and unverified smears in order to boost sales and circulation?

What protection does an ordinary citizen who cannot afford lawyers have when their rights have been violated? How can they compete with powerful business interests who control the media either through ownership or advertising spend?

The ANC cannot and will not pose any threat to the media. It is not in its interests to do so. Not when it is working so hard to consolidate and protect this hard-won democracy and freedom. We would never do anything to jeopardise the gains we have made. But we have a responsibility to democratise every aspect of South African society including the media. It is our historical duty.

The ANC has for many decades led struggles to liberate the masses of our people, both black and white, from the repressive system of apartheid. As early as the 1950's, the ANC defined the kind of South Africa it wants. This culminated in the adoption of the Freedom Charter, which forms the basis of our work and programme of action since 1994.

It was in this context that the African National Congress adopted the MAT resolution at its 52nd National Conference in 2007.

It is proper to publish the full resolution.

"ON MEDIA FREEDOM

125. The ANC must promote the school of thought which articulates media freedom within the context of the South African Constitution, in terms of which the notion that the right to freedom of expression should not be elevated above other equally important rights such as the right to privacy and more important rights and values such as human dignity.

ON THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A MEDIA APPEALS TRIBUNAL (MAT)

126. Conference adopts the recommendation of the Policy conference that the establishment of a MAT be investigated. It accordingly endorses that such investigation be directed at examining the principle of a MAT and the associated modalities for implementation. Conference notes that the creation of a MAT would strengthen, complement and support the current self-regulatory institutions (Press Ombudsman/Press Council) in the public interest.

127. This discourse on the need for a MAT should be located within a proper context. It has to be understood as an initiative to strengthen the human rights culture embodied in the principles of our constitution (Constitution Act of 1996) and an effort to guarantee the equal enjoyment of human rights by all citizens.

128. It particularly relates to the balancing of human rights in line with section 36 of the Constitution of the Republic. This especially relates to the need to balance the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the media, with the right to equality, to privacy and human dignity for all.

129. The investigation should consider the desirability that such a MAT be a statutory institution, established through an open, public and transparent process, and be made accountable to Parliament. The investigation should further consider the mandate of the Tribunal and its powers to adjudicate over matters or complaints expressed by citizens against print media, in terms of decisions and rulings made by the existing self-regulatory institutions, in the same way as it happens in the case of broadcasting through the Complaints and Compliance Committee of ICASA.

130. The investigation should further consider remedial measures which will safeguard and promote the human rights of all South Africans.

131. The Media and other stakeholders, including civil society, shall be consulted to ensure that the process is open, transparent and public. Parliament will be charged with this mandate to establish this MAT, in order to guarantee the principles of independence, transparency, accountability and fairness.

It is evident from the resolution, that the proposed establishment of the MAT, even at the time that the ANC discussed and adopted it, was never and will never be used to settle scores or to undermine the Constitution of the Republic. The ANC acknowledges the need for the work of the MAT to be transparent and fair, and this can be effectively done through people's institutions such as parliament which has public representatives.

Our parliamentarians come from different political parties, and importantly the public is also allowed through due processes to participate in the work of government. The allegation that the ANC therefore through the establishment of the MAT, wants to control the media is false and misleading. The MAT is meant to protect South Africans, rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban. The ANC, as the leader in South African society, cannot fail in its duty to defend our Constitution and to protect and defend the rights of citizens.

The debate has nothing to do with the experiences of certain individuals with the media. This is not personal, it is aimed at advancing the freedoms that are enshrined in our Constitution. It is aimed at ensuring that those who do not have money to go to lawyers can still obtain protection, as they do from the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa.

The broadcast media is regulated to protect the public as it is such a powerful institution. The print media, like other institutions, cannot be viewed to be above the Constitution. All South Africans are equal before the law, and they are equal before the Constitution of the Republic. We must remember also that no right is absolute in terms of our Bill of Rights. Therefore our interpretation of our individual rights must always be understood in the context of the rights of other South Africans.

Our contention is that the ANC does not, and will never pose any threat to media freedom. The media must seriously conduct an introspection and open a constructive debate about the role of this institution in a post-apartheid South Africa. Is the media a mirror of South African society? Is it in touch with what the majority of South Africans feel and think? Does this institution actually know and understand South Africans? Why was it surprised by the explosion of national pride during the Soccer World Cup tournament? Why did South Africans decide to rise above the daily diet of negativity and defeatism that they are fed daily in the media?

What is the impact of ownership on content and staffing? What is the ideological outlook of the media? Is there an alienation with the post-apartheid democratic order and thinking? Are we on the same wavelength regarding where South Africa should go politically, socially and economically? Does the media understand this well enough to articulate it to South Africans, to enable to accurately judge government action and performance?

Let me reiterate that the ANC will never do anything that undermines the spirit of the Constitution of the Republic, and which erodes the dignity and rights of other people, regardless of their standing in society. Let us have an open debate about the role of the media and its alignment with the Constitution of the Republic and human rights culture. Let us openly debate the ownership, content and diversity issues. Let there be no holy cows. The media should allow the ANC and the public the right to freedom of expression.

We will use our right to express what we think. And we should not be silenced by claims of "threats to press freedom".

Let the real debate begin. Let there be no holy cows!

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