Journalism & the media: time to be afraid, very afraid

Posted on December 2, 2019


Honest, evidence-based journalism is under increasing pressure, especially with so many media outlets compromised or captured.  And, like so much else in this crisis-ridden and corruption wracked world, this is not a purely South African problem.

It was a fact clearly recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) when it adopted its theme for 2019.  Thias was summed up in the slogan: “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”.

But what does this matter to the majority of citizens, to ordinary workers, employed or unemployed, and especially to the very many who often wonder where their next meal is coming from?  It matters, because unless we all understand what policies caused the conditions we are in and who may be responsible, we stand no chance of ever bringing about the “better world” constantly promised by politicians of every stripe.

We need to know what is happening, who is doing what to whom and at what cost?  This point was highlighted last week by chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng when the delivered the annual Nelson Mandela lecture.  He noted:  “Watch us closely, otherwise our constitutional democracy is gone…”

In that case, he was referring to the judiciary, but the same applies to the actions and decisions of all of those in authority.  As Mogoeng added:  “Ask yourself, [about the actions, decisions and behaviour of those in authority] does it make sense?”  

Without adequate information, it is impossible to answer that question coherently.  And it is here, within parliamentary democracies, that journalists and the media — print, broadcast and digital — have their role to play.

 But, if they play it honestly, producing evidence-based facts and clear, cogent analysis, they can quickly come into conflict with the powers that be.  Because, especially in a world facing an ongoing economic crisis, those who benefit from what is obviously a decaying system are fearful that the system itself may be challenged and perhaps changed. This they will resist at all costs.

And they are aware that honest, evidence-based information may reveal rottenness, mismanagement, incompetence and outright criminality within the present system. This is a potential threat to their positions, especially when the wider population becomes aware of how little influence voters actually have in proclaimed democracies.  Such realisation can result in serious rebelliousness.

So the elites, singly and, at times, in unison, act to try to ensure that the majority is fed information that is manipulated, distorted and, all too often, untrue.  But within parliamentary systems — systems that were fought for and won by working people — they have to resort to a variety of subterfuges to promote their agendas.

The problem for the elites is that, although democracy in parliamentary systems is limited, the principle of press freedom, access to information and of evidence-based reporting by journalists is publicly upheld.  However, media outlets can be bought and public broadcasters can, by various means, be brought under state control.  Some journalists may also be prepared to prostitute their professions for a price.  

However, not all media can be brought under such control and nor can all journalists.  But such bought or state controlled media can be used — and are used — to promote misinformation and to launch scurrilous attack on honest journalists while attempting to undermine media that were asked by Mogoeng to, “watch closely” and report accordingly.

Several parliamentary governments, acting as most do, as the line managers of a system that favours a tiny and elite minority, have also legislated — or are trying to pass into law — further restrictions on the right to information.  South Africa provides not just one, but two classic cases:  the Protection of State Information — “Secrecy” — Bill and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Bill (CIPB).

Both these legislative measures have their roots firmly in the notorious apartheid era  National Key Points Act of 1980.  And while they amend certain aspect of the old law, they appear to fail to provide the safeguards for whistleblowers and media demanded by  the Constitution.

Worryingly, the State Security Agency let it be known in July this year that it would favour the signing into law of the Secrecy Bill. This putative law has been gathering dust in the presidential office since its progress was halted in 2013 by mass street protests.

Times have changed. For example, there were no street protests when the CIPB went through parliament.  

And no action has been taken against a minister who impugned the integrity of journalists and the media when he admitted to the criminal act of bribery.   Although minerals minister Gwede Mantashe subsequently denied paying a R70 000 bribe to two unnamed journalists, he never provided names, never apologised and remained in the cabinet and as chair of the ANC.  

The smear against the media and journalism remains.  And there was no reply when the SA National Editors Forum (I am a member) wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa asking what action would be taken against Mantashe.

This further muddies the waters, helping to create an impression of untrustworthy journalists serving a media biased against the national good, represented by the government and the system it serves.  It is against this background that the CIPB — it continues to make the SA Broadcasting Corporation an effective “key point” — was recently signed into law as Act No.8 of 2019.

This should certainly make now a time for all good people to come to the aid of not just journalism and the media, but to give fulsome support for continued — and expanded — access to information along with for honest and reliable media.