Putting a Short Leash on Media Will Throttle Their Patriotic Duty
The recent inaugural meeting of the People's Assembly (national parliament linked up by satellite to the provincial legislatures) afforded the Congress of South African Trade Unions a handy platform to call for an official performance assessment of the South African media.
During an event to mark the anniversary of the constitution it emerged that SA's largest trade union federation had been pondering the ticklish issue in some depth.
Not only did Cosatu have ideas on how journalistic routines and standards - along with reporting mind-sets and approaches - could be changed and improved, it also identified possible remedies - right down to specific topics - for shaping the news agenda and presenting stories.
There are numerous courses of action open to parties - especially powerful, well-resourced ones - wishing to address perceived faults in media organisations and their coverage of national life. Two options are particularly pertinent here.
Firstly, they could launch their own media outlets which exemplify the world view and approach that is absent from fare currently on offer. The public must then decide whether they serve real needs and can survive, or even prosper, in the marketplace.
Government has started its own news agency of sorts for politically appropriate and sanitised stories, which are made available to the commercial media. But there is no onus on privately owned and controlled media houses to use such material.
The Government Communication and Information System, also taxpayer-funded, churns out material championing the government's achievements and delivery successes, or simply portraying the ruling party's political programmes positively.
Much of it is not presented in a particularly artful or appetising way, let alone in a language appropriate for its target market. And like much paid-for material, marketing fluff or propaganda, it does not enjoy the same authority and credibility as news.
Cosatu's alliance partner, the ANC, has toyed with the idea of a dedicated party newspaper. In the run-up to the 1994 poll, the National Party leadership was desperately hoping its chief rival would pursue this dream, believing it would very effectively deplete the ANC's election war chest.
But the ANC settled for a much cheaper option, an online publication which carries, among other things, President Thabo Mbeki's increasingly widely-read weekly letter. Although the vast majority of citizens do not have access to the internet, the letter and the debates it generates enjoy significant exposure in the mainstream media as well.
The second, and more common, course of action followed by politicians unhappy with media coverage is to try to change the existing order, by prescribing normative criteria for how journalism should be practised, or proscribing and policing selected activities of established media.
This option appears to carry more appeal for Cosatu, whose Gauteng representative Phutas Tseki's problem with the media is not so much that they operate on a long leash but with any leash at all. In his view, the media enjoys "absolute freedom" to report on important matters such as development issues in South Africa and the rest of the continent, but fails to display the requisite patriotism and "is not assisting us".
Therefore, lawmakers had to monitor and assess such errant reporting and impose the necessary restrictions. Presumably, such curbs would have the twin merits, in Cosatu's view: limiting the potential damage caused by media not directly answerable to the political power elite and its developmental agenda, and getting journalists to align their stories more closely with efforts to address the many daunting developmental challenges confronting the country and the continent.
Given the problems facing Africa, the sense of urgency and frustration felt by those wanting to fast-track its reconstruction and development is understandable. Indeed, Mbeki's own brother, Moeletsi, said the average African citizen is worse off now than under colonialism and sub-Saharan Africa is getting poorer every year.
However, this past week both an African Union report and a Transparency International conference blamed corruption (particularly among political leaders) as the main cause of crippling poverty, underdevelopment, debt and capital flight.
Restricting media coverage, suppressing criticism and limiting the exposure of malpractice would run precisely counter to the patriotic duty of the media to advance development.
Johnson is a former assistant editor and political editor of the Cape Times.
With acknowledgements to Anthony Johnson and the Cape Times.