Bleak look at SA media freedom

Posted on November 24, 2014


Produced for the current edition of the Zambian Bulletin & Record

Where in the world has a ventriloquist’s dummy been sued for defamation and won a gagging order in court? Why, in South Africa, of course. Among the increasingly bizarre contradictions that have emerged in this once widely hailed “rainbow nation”, this is one of them.

Chester Missing is the dummy, a puppet little more than a metre tall that is operated by ventriloquist Conrad Koch, a satirist, comedian and graduate of the College of Magic in Cape Town. Chester has his own column in a Sunday newspaper and appears regularly on television, interviewing leading politicians in an often outrageous way.

“He says things I could never hope to say,” says Koch. And, for the most part, such things go down extremely well, with Chester having become something of a national treasure while Koch’s name is nowhere near as well known. But Chester and, therefore, Koch, have become the targets of a rightwing polemicist and singer, Steve Hofmeyr, whose steadily waning fan base seems to comprise the remaining hardcore of white, Afrikaner nationalists who mourn the demise of the apartheid state.

Although Hofmeyr’s action was probably motivated more by the need for publicity than any serious hurt felt, it is symptomatic of a growing tendency in South Africa to stifle critical comment and maintain support for the status quo. And the ANC-alliance government is to the forefront here.

As support for the alliance has fallen and protests of one or other kind have mounted, so too have demands to curb the press become more pronounced and more shrill. In the wake of the elections in May this year, Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and minister of higher education, maintained that one of the main reasons for voter disgruntlement was the “bourgeois media”.

He was supported by ANC secretary-general and former SACP chairman, Gwede Mantashe, who claimed that the media in general were part of the “hostile forces” faced by the ANC alliance. This was a repetition of arguments senior figures in the ANC have advanced, especially since the effectively palace coup that unseated former president Thabo Mbeki in 2007.

At the time, Mbeki’s contender, Jacob Zuma, was mired in controversy, facing what eventually turned out to be more than 700 charges of corruption. But Zuma, whose publicly exposed romantic dalliances, including children outside of polygamous wedlock, could provide the substance for a host of TV soap operas, managed to avoid his day in court.

His critics claim that he was able to do so because he has maintained a quite firm hold on the security establishment and on crucial elements within ANC structures. But while the opposition Democratic Alliance has continued to press for explanations for the dropping of charges, a still reasonably alert media has not shied away from exposing embarrassing details about continuing government mismanagement and corruption.

Zuma is particularly unhappy about the media investigation that revealed that R260 million of taxpayer money had been spent on a “security upgrade” of his private compound. This included a swimming pool, cattle pen and modern chicken run.

The media, Zuma noted in November, had a “culture” that resulted in marketing the country negatively. It was necessary to “meet those who create stories to understand that we need to promote our country”.

According to government officials, these “negative stories” include the revelation that the only apparent qualification a number of appointees to various senior positions in state enterprises have for the job is their loyalty to the president and his party. Included among these is the head of the national broadcaster, Hlaudi Motsoeneng and chairperson of the SABC board, Ellen Tshabalala.

That both Motsoeneng and Tshabalala, remain in place, reinforces the view that the national broadcaster is increasingly the voice of not only government, but of the grouping within the ANC that supports Zuma. Such developments have contributed to the fact that South Africa’s ranking in the international press freedom stakes (published by Reporters Without Borders) has tumbled from 26th in 2002 to 52nd now.

But the major reason is the fact that the restrictive Protection of State Information law that aims to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information awaits only Zuma’s signature. That he has not signed this Bill into law is probably because he is aware that it will be challenged in the Constitutional Court.

Because of this — and with the aid of wealthy “friends” — the government has been able to employ several tactics to win media support. The Gupta family, who are in business with one of Zuma’s sons, Dudzane, launched the New Age newspaper, providing “positive news” and the ANN7 TV channel to provide “nation building stories”.

Government and parastatal purchases of New Age and state advertising appear to be mainstays of both ventures. And there have been warnings from the ANC about government advertising being withheld from publications that are persistently “negative”.

According to former journalist, editor and now journalism professor Anton Harber, the ANC is “using state power and resources to try and give support to a more sympathetic and less critical media”.

This is clearly the hope of the controversial head of the consortium that last year bought South Africa’s largest English language newspaper chain, Independent News Media. Iqbal Surve, a medical doctor turned businessman who is given to extravagant claims about his background, appointed as group executive editor a journalist, Karima Brown, who is referred to in some quarters as a “Zuma and Nzimande groupie”.

However, one of the most popular media outlets is the free to air eTV channel. And it has now apparently become a target for political manipulation. In a messy boardroom battle evidence was given of attempts to interfere with the news output.

Former trade unionists John Copelyn and Marcel Golding who went from being ANC MPs to billionaire businessmen are at the centre of this slanging match. In the words of a media studies professor at the University of Cape Town: “The future for newsrooms is quite bleak.”

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