The Media, the State and their Love-Hate Relationship

By Saliem Fakir · 26 Jul 2010

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Picture credit: Downing Street
Picture credit: Downing Street

The furore over the Protection of Information Bill and its proposed draconian punishments for disclosing classified state documents belies a long simmering tension between the state and South Africa’s free press.

In the background of the parliamentary process to charge through the Bill sits the ANC’s proposal to establish a media tribunal. The resolution was proposed in Polokwane, supposedly to stop media excesses and abuse. After somewhat of a lull, the idea has been revived once again.

In truth, it has all the trappings of a statutory media inquisition and can easily be abused. It may curtail irresponsible and unethical journalism, but it will do nothing to shift deliberate media bias in some quarters and legitimate criticism against the state and the ANC. 

It is true that the establishment hasn’t quite been able to break the mainstream media’s hegemony. But its attempt to quarantine media freedom may end up being far too sweeping.

And, while the establishment fights hard to win the image war, recurrent state malpractices and excesses don’t help.

Irrespective, the state is struggling and is divided over what to do about the media -- this sometimes-disruptive platform for truth and proprietor of the populace’s mind.

The relationship is often contradictory, if not symbiotic.

By all accounts journalistic freedom in South Africa is among the freest in the world. We can speak our minds provided we are allowed to do so by those who control the microphone, camera or the writing tabloid in ways they want.

As far as the state goes, things can be said without fear of serious reprisal. This is as far as one can see up to this point. In today’s South Africa, truths about the establishment are still saleable without the danger of death stalking you.

Here journalists are not dealt the kind of hand that was dealt the enterprising revealer of Russia’s horrors in northern Caucasia, Anna Politkovskaya, who many suspect was murdered by Putin’s KGB.

But bullying does prevail.

Notice how African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) spokesperson, Floyd Shivambu, went after City Press journalist, Dumisani Lubisi, who exposed Julius Malema’s tenderpreneurial activities in Limpopo.

Shivambu tried to counter these allegations through intimidation and dirty tricks. But given that Malema himself can’t see his own image divorced from press attention, Shivambu’s ploy was stopped in it tracks because it threatened to bring about the self-immolation of the youth league. 

It hasn’t been all derision. The state and party are not always against the media. Where the media cannot be owned or controlled, it has been a useful weapon too. This is one of the reasons the establishment is divided over how retribution should be meted against the independent press.

If there are reprisals, they come by way of withholding advertising spend. At times, journalists are scolded, but wholesale shutting down of the press Mugabe style has not yet happened.

At other times, the media is wooed and molly coddled in recognition of its amplifying power. Journalists are well treated at press conferences, launches and study tours.

When it comes to dirty politics, the media is seen as friend rather than foe. It’s most effective use has been in dealing or disposing of rivals in the staging and positioning of emerging claimants for various political thrones.

Where good coverage is not assured, it can be bought.

Most recently, the former premier of the Western Cape, Ebrahim Rasool, was accused of using hired guns from the media to write favourable opinion pieces about his administration and feed the media scandal by dishing out dirt on his enemies within the ANC.

Stories also abound of strategic leaks by state ‘whistle-blowers’ who are not entirely innocent in how information is given to the media. Often the timing of strategic leaks has been too impeccable to avoid noticing.

Take the case of COSATU Secretary General, Zwelinzima Vavi, who learned the hard lesson of the dirty tricks game when the Mail and Guardian exposed his wife, Noluthando Vavi’s, dealings with an unscrupulous insurance agency, Southern African Quantum Insurance.

It was alleged that Vavi’s wife was paid handsomely to sell insurance to COSATU and its affiliates so as to create the impression of conflict of interest. Vavi’s crime was that he was too vocal about corruption and extravagant lifestyles within the state leadership and party, so he had to be taken out in a media exposé.

The availability of the media infrastructure and its wide reach is often a blessing in the war for political control or the settling of personal vendettas. It’s literally a case of use whatever weapon is available.

If anything, the fourth estate is having quite a revival. It’s just that its needy interlocutors can’t quite make up their minds about whether they love the media or hate it.

This tension between the State and the media goes back all the way to the day the new government came to power. But it did see some heightened criticism during the Mbeki era.

Back then the press was largely seen as liberal and dominated by white journalists. The primary issue was how the media portrayed the nascent black run state. It was one of both race and ideology.

There was also a point at which the media was hauled in front of the Human Rights Commission where investigations were conducted over the media’s supposed racial bias.

Well, there may have been some of that, but it’s hard to draw the line between biased opinion that seeks to caste a negative view about the black ruling class and valid criticism.

That battle was not won at the time. The Commission’s enquiry passed without a flutter. But we did witness change within the media establishment thereafter.

Today the accusation of racism can’t easily be made. Local ownership of the media is pretty transformed. Journalism itself enjoys a diverse hue, except that where whiteness has been lost, ideology and making a viable business out of the media game has gained pre-eminence. 

But what one can accuse the mainstream media of is class bias. The media largely reflects the interests of those in power or those vying for power.

The commercial media may have their own problems, but so too does state media.

The question of ownership concentration and the preference for specific type of voices and ways of articulating state and party dynamics still arouses irritation within the establishment.

The state takes its stake in the media so seriously that the SABC has hardly ever been free from internal wars of control. It seems that both during the Mbeki and Zuma eras, the SABC has become something of a battle ground for different factions within the ANC.

Note how the Mbekites used the SABC to wage a war against Zuma’s credibility. Well, lately Mbeki seems to have been given a taste of his own medicine. There is an allegation that the blacklisting of commentators not looked upon favourably by the current establishment seems to have been revived again.

The ANC has always been desperate to create its own mouthpiece to amplify the interests of the ruling class.

Since 1994 there have been no real seismic shifts in the private media space except for an early attempt from ANC friendly, Koni Media Holdings, to buy-out of Avusa, which owns Business Day and Sunday Times -- two newspapers that dominate the opinion market and constantly get under the skin of the establishment. The deal fell through after the buyers controversially sought to have money put up for the purchase by the state’s pension fund.

Following the failed grab of Avusa, documents were leaked showing the ANC’s further attempts to buy-out the Sowetan (2008), also owned by Avusa, to the tune of about R250 million, but this was denied by the ANC.

Now, however, A pro-state and ANC newspaper looks set to be launched, after the failed bids for Avusa and Sowetan, by securing finances from the Gupta family from India, the owners of Sahara (the computer company) who are purportedly close to Zuma.

This pro-ANC newspaper, The New Age, will reportedly be launched in September this year.

The New Age’s role within the world of media politics will no doubt be shaped by Essop Pahad, former Minister in Mebki’s Presidency who is spearheading the creation of the newspaper. Pahad currently runs The Thinker as an attempt to counter mainstream commentary.

Pahad himself has been a vociferous critic of the private press and has often locked horns with its editors over the coverage of state and party affairs.

The struggle over opinion and ways to wrestle control over the truth platform continues. It seems to be a never-ending love-hate relationship. But what it does do is underscore the fact that the freedom of the press works for both sides.

Those seeking to kill the golden goose may be inadvertently killing their own fortunes in a game of truth making. Caution must be exercised about which battles to fight and what causes to win.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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