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Dr Iqbal Survé: Consider the cost of silence when media freedom is at stake

In exposing the less-than-savoury side of politics and corporate interference in media, Independent Media has courted serious disfavour, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

In exposing the less-than-savoury side of politics and corporate interference in media, Independent Media has courted serious disfavour, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jun 27, 2020


Freedom of the press is roughly defined as having the ability to use various channels - print, digital and broadcast - to convey information, opinion and news, without the interference from the governing state. In other words, no government shall control what media can and cannot say save for, in this country, what is held in our Constitution as hate or racist speech.

For true media freedom to exist, there needs to be a balance of viewpoints - from all sides. The good, the bad and the ugly, the rich and the poor, educated or not, ill or healthy, all races and cultures and even the animal kingdom, all deserve to have their voices heard.

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Excluding any specific sector from the conversation effectively divides and segregates. In a country whose recent history is still healing the wounds of division, having a robust media report across all sectors of business and society is critical to the success of our still young democracy.

This includes confronting what for many remain uncomfortable issues, hangovers from our pre-democracy days: ongoing corruption, dissent, dissatisfaction, political and corporate interference. Just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what makes up the dinner table talk (if you are lucky to have one), which I hope also includes time devoted to some of the truly excellent happenings going on in the country on a daily basis.

In times of crisis, however, there is a tendency for those wielding power - whether economic or political - to want to control the narrative. This we have to safeguard against, at all costs, even if it means donning the metaphorical boxing gloves to resist the attacks on stifling our right to express reality.

Dr Iqbal Survé is chairperson of Independent Media and Sekunjalo Investment Holdings.

Attacks on media freedom

That the media space is changing is not in dispute here. The fight for readers’ attention has become ever fiercer, as the number of channels increase and readers desert traditional sources of information in favour of their favourite social media platform and “influencer”.

This race for the share of the revenue, viewership and readership pie, does not in any way explain the nature of the attacks Independent Media sustains, which are increasingly personal, and with racist undertones.

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It is unconscionable that at a time when Covid-19 has increased the haemorrhaging of jobs in the media space, that fingers continue to point in Independent Media’s direction and put the employment of nearly 1500 personnel on the line.

What could possibly be gained

by this?

Looking at South Africa’s past, the media was largely a voice for the state.

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Ownership of the conversation was limited, with large swathes of the population excluded. It served to create a false reality which many, still today, find hard to grasp.

In order then to understand the full picture of life in South Africa, it was important to not just include more reporters of colour, different cultures and outlooks, but ownership of the media space and the executives who actively lead the organisations too.

While at the dawn of democracy, the Times Media Group had some black ownership - Dr Nthato Motlana, Saki Macozoma, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale - the executive and newsrooms were not fully representative of the new South Africa; as a result, business continued as usual.

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The first large-scale shift occurred when Sekunjalo Investment Media bought Independent Media.

Independent Media’s role in revealing our current and ever-

present reality and why some might want our “storytelling” silenced

Since the Sekunjalo Independent Media consortium acquired the Independent Media Group in 2013, there has been much attention levelled at both entities - mostly negative and from competing media houses (print, online and broadcast).

This is not necessarily unusual, since media owners are generally given a hard time and especially in a highly competitive market with fewer publications fighting for share of voice, such as in South Africa. I’ve even heard it said: “When you become a media owner you lose all of your friends.” Since running a business is not a popularity contest, this is to be expected.

However, the unprecedented interest and slew of attacks on Independent Media, our editors, journalists as well as me, are constant and way beyond what would be considered “normal” business competition. The question is, why?

As a reminder, Independent Media titles - print and online - share a diversity of viewpoints representative of the wider South Africa. This diversity is carried through into the make-up of the company itself, with an employee base truly reflecting the demographics of the country. Independent Media, which publishes in English and vernacular languages, is the most widely distributed print media across the country. The stories, opinions and insights carried are rooted in the daily reality of living and working in the cultural melting pot that is South Africa.

Prior to 2013, readers’ perspectives were still largely shaped by a narrow viewpoint, as transformation post-1994 had been slow to permeate media structures and the stories they carried. This is not a criticism but a fact.

Since 2013, however, Independent Media has presented the populace with a far more representative view of what happens on the ground and in the boardroom. This has not always been welcomed by the establishment, as it challenges preconceived notions and hopefully, encourages readers to consider alternatives and to think beyond the flat pages or screens of their news feeds, to form their own opinions.

In broadening our horizons, bringing in young blood to learn from some of the best in the industry, I believe that South Africans now have a far clearer view of the poor, the working class, the rural community, as well as geopolitical news - encompassing the West and the East. Independent Media is non-aligned, and I would argue that Independent Media has fulfilled a vital development mandate, which is critical for the long-term future of our country.

The black ownership and management of the country’s single biggest and arguably most influential media group, which may have upset certain quarters, is still not enough to rationalise why it is repeatedly attacked.

Perhaps we also need to look at how Independent Media has actively promoted the international relations and foreign policy position of the South African government aligned to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa business communities) grouping. This has often been interpreted to be pro-East and by implication, therefore, as anti-West, when in actual fact Independent Media carries commentary from across the globe.

This still does not justify why it is that our platform for providing the many truths that comprise reality, needs to be eradicated.

The secret could lie within the dark and often convoluted corridors of political power. Independent Media strives to stick to its principles of giving all political parties equal space - without prejudice, fear or favour. However, when a country’s governing party is at war with itself, there is potential for this principle to be compromised.

It is no secret that at present, the ANC is enduring a heated factional dissent within its ranks, one that has far-reaching consequences for all of us in this country. It is our obligation as media to responsibly convey the truth - even if it hurts - from all sides, this includes constructive criticism of the players concerned.

In the media space, the battle lines have been drawn with publishers pro-one faction over another, turning a blind eye to some of the transgressions and highlighting others of the opponent. Fairness, balanced views in reporting, is disappearing.

During the Jacob Zuma years, it was Independent Media that first wrote about the excesses of the Gupta family and called those in charge to account. This is a fact often glossed over by our rivals. Likewise, we report on what the current dispensation gets right, and wrong. We do so in fairness to the citizens of this country who have the right to know what their political leaders have done or will do to come to power and remain there, in order to govern us all.

It could well be then, that in

ripping off the Band-Aid patching

our country together and exposing

the less than savoury side of politics

and corporate interference, that

Independent Media has courted

serious disfavour.

The truth is clearly hurting that means we are doing our job and it also means that we will continue to call it like it is, because consider the cost of silence if we are to be muted.

* Survé is chairperson of Independent Media and Sekunjalo Investment Holdings.

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