Lack of diversity remains a threat to true free speech
Pretoria - CONSTITUTIONAL protection of freedom of expression and the media, with courts willing and eager to affirm these, does not equate to media freedom, nor to the media being the best it can be in terms of fulfilling its democratic role.
If we look at the last 26 years of democracy, we see that our courts have passed several judgments that have strengthened media freedom in South Africa, including affirming the notion that public figures ought to be subjected to greater media scrutiny and not be permitted to use allegations of defamation to curb media probes.
This legislative support for media freedom is a far cry from Black Wednesday, October 19, 1977, when apartheid South Africa jailed and exiled journalists and banned opposition media outlets. However, there is no cause for complacency as there are still multiple threats to media freedom today, some more insidious than others.
A major current threat is the lack of media diversity, characterised by a few large media companies owning multiple media outlets that toe the same editorial line and give access to but a few voices.
This has escalated while several small media companies and investigative media outlets that managed to publish the voice of the voiceless in the apartheid era did not survive beyond the first decade of democracy.
The few titles that have survived lack the free and fearless voices of yesteryear.
Quality media today is facing a perfect storm. Declining advertising revenues, coupled with competition from free online sites and the growth of fake news on social media, has resulted in a reduction of outlets for quality journalism, and, alarmingly, it has significantly reduced capacities in newsrooms to pay senior, experienced journalists, full-time and freelance.
To be sure, there have been stellar displays of vigorous probing journalism by the investigative units of some media outlets and independent investigative journalism outfits.
They exposed state capture by the Guptas and arguably hastened the demise of former president Jacob Zuma. They have done outstanding work in exposing corruption in South Africa.
As we know, corruption has not been the exclusive preserve of politicians, public servants and government at all levels, but also of the private sector, as we saw in the state capture involvement of audit firms and financial services companies, and in private corporations like Steinhoff – arguably the greatest private-sector corruption story of post-apartheid South Africa. The issue here is that defending, sustaining and deepening democracy needs quality investigative journalism to be the norm, and not something remarkable achieved by the few. For this to happen, media and journalism needs to be healthy, robust, sufficiently resourced and free in every sense to pursue to its role in society.
Instead, what do we see? We see that the majority of new titles that have emerged tend to be tabloids peddling salacious celebrity gossip.
It can be argued that it’s of interest to the public, but it is not in the public interest that growth in the media is characterised by titles that completely avoid the deep challenges facing the nation.
Further shackling media freedom is the growing culture of media avoidance and shunning of accountability by the government. Without meaningful access to those who make key decisions and exercise power, the media is not able to hold them up to public scrutiny. The cancerous outcome of this is the current state of endemic corruption, maladministration and the decline of South Africa’s economy and growth prospects. Democracy demands substantive responsiveness to the media by government. This is not happening. An example during the Covid-19 pandemic is the lack of regular, direct question-and-answer sessions between journalists and the president.
In the six months of hard lockdown, the president only addressed journalists twice for about 90 minutes each time. South African citizens have not had their questions answered, including how the Covid-19 billions have been allocated and who has benefited.
Another example of the government’s avoidance of democratic process during election periods is the absence of live debates or town-hall engagements by the presidential candidates in the major political parties, in front of voting audiences, moderated by seasoned journalists.
Then there is the beleaguered SABC, the public broadcaster and largest media entity by audience reach, which has suffered periods of such extreme board and managerial capture and financial difficulty that it has reached the point where it is now surviving on state bailouts.
Could this once again compromise its editorial and programming independence? Of course it could. Our hope lies in the new management and editorial teams to stand, defend and advance editorial and programming independence.
We must not forget the enemy within, when some media houses are caught in unethical acts and sloppy journalism that is not fact checked. With friends like these, who needs enemies.
And so, while we think back to Black Wednesday 1977, we need to think about what has come to pass since that time. We need to address the threats facing quality media today and what needs to be done about this before more freedoms slip away.
* Professor Kupe is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.