We seem today to be surrounded by much deliberate obfuscation of critical issues by official sources and, all too often, by a swirl of lies, innuendo and fear mongering. It is a recipe for confusion, peppered with mind-numbing bigotry.
And it serves the interests of governments and political parties, along with others with vested interests in the system. It is they who create the confusion as they try constantly to corrupt and manipulate information and its dissemination.
With the world in turmoil as the economic crisis deepens, these practices have become more intense. And they create an environment that provides a fertile breeding ground for demagogues of every stripe as political and economic elites battle often desperately to cling onto or to improve their positions.
There is only one counter to this: upholding the right to freedom of expression and freedom to disseminate information and analysis that is honest and factual. This is something enshrined in South Africa’s justly hailed Constitution. Yet last week, the South African government joined Russia and China — hardly paragons of human rights — in opposing a United Nations move to win an international commitment to respect freedom of expression and privacy online.
Here was an international aspect of what is an ongoing war where, in South Africa, the current battle is centred on the SA Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). This in a domestic media environment where public relations practitioners — spin doctors — probably outnumber journalists, the men and women tasked with providing factual news to the print and broadcast media on which most people rely.
For the mass of ordinary citizens such news, when it is as accurate as possible and encourages critical thinking, is the only antidote to that which can be socially poisonous and politically debilitating. This is why the role of the Fourth Estate, of journalism, is probably more crucial now than it has ever been.
Yet the workers — the fact finders, writers broadcasters and analysts — in this sector are today in South Africa organisationally weak and under increasing pressure as competition for a shrinking pool of jobs increases. Perhaps ironically, it is the SA National Editors’ Forum that is the major industry standard bearer for freedom of expression and the free flow of information.
The former journalists’ union collapsed in financial ignominy; the leading media union from the struggle days, the Media Workers’ Association (Mwasa), has economic problems and is on the brink of deregistration, while the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) which has some journalist members, appears to have struck up a cosy relationship with the SABC.
Mwasa, although it still has members in the SABC, has been “derecognised” in what has been described as a “reign of terror” by the widely discredited broadcast boss, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. He has acknowledged the CWU, which hosted him this month at a gala dinner, as the SABC union.
Given the disarray and disgruntlement within the public broadcaster, a newly formed National Trade Union Congress is also making a pitch for members at the SABC and elsewhere, attacking both Cosatu and the putative federation headed by the metalworkers’ union, Numsa. The SA Communist Party has also now joined the fray, picketing the SABC.
Lost in the resulting cacophony of news and views is the fact that journalism, properly practiced, is not “just a job”. It is the only craft where the practitioners operate as the eyes and ears of the public at large. This is both a privilege and a serious responsibility.
An obvious factor here — and the single most important skill for any journalist — is critical thinking. It is also, arguably, one of the most important skills for every human being to master and one that good journalism should encourage.
So working journalists clearly need to get their organisational act together to ensure the free flow from all media outlets of information that is honest, accurate and encourages critical thinking. In this, they deserve the widest support from a public that needs such information to remain politically and socially healthy.
As the American sociologist William Sumner perceptively noted: “[Critical thinking] is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances.”