Printing press, press freedom, press, media, paper, news, free, fair. Photo by Michael Walker

Newspapers have overwhelmingly dodged responsibility and avoided transformation – it’s not what we need, says Blade Nzimande.

Post-apartheid South Africa, like all societies, needs public media as a platform for debate, knowledge sharing, education and the dissemination of information. However, as a country still emerging from a brutal and racist past, it is not enough to simply acknowledge this necessity. We also need to examine what kind of media we have, what kind we need and deserve. One can only hope that the Sekunjalo-owned media group will open all its platforms for ongoing debate on this vitally important matter.

If there is one major South African institution that has cleverly avoided transformation, and even blackmailed us into accepting the status quo, it is the media, especially the print media.

Even a cursory examination of the print media in the past 20 years would show that, with few cosmetic changes, its ownership and orientation still reflect a white, capitalist and semi-colonial storyline. Despite some recent changes, the print media are still overwhelmingly dominated by a discourse that reflects the values of a privileged minority.

The South African media, from the beginnings of our democracy, avoided appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This despite large sections of it colluding in the maintenance and sustenance of the apartheid regime. It is well known that the apartheid security apparatuses infiltrated the media and co-opted certain journalists to serve its interests, including collaborating with the murderous Security Branch. The Afrikaans press had close ties to the Nationalist Party government and its security forces.

The media seems to have succeeded in using the concepts of freedom of the press and freedom of speech to prevent a fuller confrontation with issues of media transformation. Even legitimate calls for independent enquiries into media transformation have been delegitimised as a threat to media freedom. The self-appointed Press Freedom Commission, by its own admission, never confronted the important issue of media transformation, but decided on a one-sided focus on press regulation. Frankly, this is not the principal issue facing media transformation in South Africa today, as I will argue below.

The SACP has correctly argued over a long period that the fundamental question confronting media transformation is its ownership, orientation and content. Ownership of the print media, at least until the establishment of New Age and more significantly the recent sale of Independent Newspapers to the Sekunjalo consortium, has largely remained in white capitalist hands. The orientation and value system of our print media has reflected this ownership pattern.

The scandal involving corruption in the construction industry during the 2010 Fifa World Cup, in which some of the major construction companies were found to have acted corruptly, received only superficial media coverage. We are yet to see the naming and shaming of the guilty chief executives and directors by the media. Compare this to how black business people are often hounded at the mere hint of wrongdoing. Commercial print media has effectively equated corruption to blackness! I’m not suggesting the media should ignore corruption by blacks (it should not), but most of our print media displays a clear racial bias in its coverage of corruption.

One should also look at coverage (or rather non-coverage) of the African continent by mainstream media. African news, when it is covered at all, is sourced from European or US-based news agencies. For instance, only the Argus newspaper gave any meaningful coverage to the Nairobi mall terrorist attack. In such cases, the South African media seldom sends correspondents to the country where news is happening and hardly ever interacts with relevant diplomatic representatives resident in South Africa. Rather it relies on Western news agencies. Important news from our continent and region is simply ignored. The print media, in its international coverage, is a little piece of Europe!

There are countless other examples of the racist bias in our media. Recently there has been a chorus of protest around the removal of the Cape Times editor. Yet, when Times Media fired senior black editors, the silence was deafening. Why? Because the assumption is that the print media is the rightful dominion of the incumbent white establishment. At the Cape Times, for instance, the majority of its columnists are white males, but there were no protests about this blatant bias. Yes, it’s true that race is not the only measure of transformation, but the racial profile of any institution must be a fundamental consideration for transformation.

The underlying message sent by the howls of protest about the removal of the Cape Times editor is that white media bosses have a right to hire and fire black editors at will, like at Times Media, but black owners have no right to hire and fire white editors!

The less said about the blatant bias of business news in print media, the better. Our media is uncritically supportive of neo-liberal economics, completely ignoring the deep crisis of neo-liberal ideology since the onset of the 2008 global capitalist crisis. In the same period, many countries in Latin America have been dumping neo-liberal regimes in favour of left-leaning governments. Yet, there is hardly any informed reporting or analysis of either the crisis of neo-liberalism or the emerging Latin American alternatives in South Africa’s media.

In the light of all the above, it is clearly not unfair to conclude that in South Africa today, newspaper readers are often fed one-sided, economically right-wing and often racist, propaganda. This is unsurprising given that the print media itself is so untransformed.

All who value our democracy should intensify the struggle for media diversity with a priority focus on changing ownership patterns and also on supporting community media. This change is a pre-requisite for a more balanced, informative, relevant and engaging media. The SACP also calls on the government to deliberately diversify its ad spend to support media diversity, not only in terms of ownership, but content too. We need a strong, diverse, quality media – something palpably better than the status quo!

* Nzimande is the general secretary of the SACP.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Indepent Newspapers.

Pretoria News