We are not in the business of muting unpopular voices
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Johannesburg - In their book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, American professors Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman argue that contrary to the image of the media as honest searchers of truth and justice, they are in fact the defenders of the socio-economic and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate the societal affairs, the government and geopolitics.
On the basis of their analysis of the treatment of “worthy” versus “unworthy” victims, “legitimizing” and “meaningless”, the duo concluded that journalists followed a propaganda model which covered up the errors and deceits of the powerful.
“It is our view that, among their other functions, the media serve, and propagandise on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them.
“In our view, the same underlying power sources that own the media and fund them as advertisers, that serves as primary definers of the news, and that produce flak and proper-thinking experts, also play a key role in fixing basic principles and the dominant ideologies.
“We believe that what journalists do, what they see as newsworthy, and what they take for granted as premises of their work are frequently well explained by the incentives, pressures, and constraints incorporated into such a structural analysis.”
In response to our story published in the Sunday Independent last week, under the headline “SA in foreign control”, which highlighted the frustrations of disenchanted locals about the impact of illegal immigration, a small but vocal group of people accused us of being part of a R1m per month sponsored campaign of xenophobia and hate speech.
They included the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), the Daily Maverick and former Free State University Vice Chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen.
In a telephone call, Sanef chairperson Sbu Ngalwa told Sunday Independent editor Zingisa Mkhuma that his organisation believed we are xenophobic. He did not care to give the basis for such unfounded conclusions.
Daily Maverick journalist Jessica Bezuidenhout wrote that the #putsouthafricafirst hashtag was used by disenchanted locals was nothing but a “dangerously orchestrated narrative”. She added that it coalesced around a “fictional” Twitter user called Lerato Pillay.
Citing a probe into the hashtag by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioral Change, Bezuidenhout said Pillay’s account was part of a “well-oiled propaganda machine” funded to the tune of R1m per month.
Refusing to be outdone, her colleague Richard Poplak added in a separate oped that our story represented “xenophobia o'clock”. He partly blamed Independent Media proprietor Dr Iqbal Surve.
For his part, Jansen contended that the article was “inflammatory” and the headline “blatant nonsense”.
What the four forgot to mention was that the hashtag could have been triggered in part by the fact that the official unemployment rate increased by 1 percentage point to 30,1% compared to the fourth quarter of 2019, according to Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the first quarter of 2020.
The same figures show that the number of unemployed persons increased by 344 000 to 7.1 million while 38 000 jobs were lost.
Also, it escaped their minds that local truck drivers have been blocking highways and damaging property in protest against what they call the preference for illegal migrants by truck owners. They also accused the government of failing to enforce the country’s immigration and labour laws.
They probably also never heard of anyone lamenting that most businesses, especially in the hospitality and retail industry, have retrenched locals in favour of exploited foreign nationals.
For Sanef, Daily Maverick, Jansen and their fellow travellers, this is at best unverifiable hearsay and, at worst, xenophobic tendencies.
Ngalwa, Bezuidenhout, Poplak and Jansen are well within their rights to critique or even criticize our work. What they do not have, though, is the right to heckle, silence and delegitimize unpopular voices who tell them the uncomfortable truth.
In simple terms, they have no right to manufacture consent about the state of affairs in the country, and to negate the lived experiences of those whose plight they regard as unworthy of attention.
Their knee-jerk reaction may well be too condescending and part of Professor Steven Friedman’s observation of a general belief among the South African elites that low income people lack sophistication and maturity, and that their poverty is a sign of inability.
The four’s supposed moral high ground is also littered with hypocrisy. A diversity and ethics study commissioned by the forum a few years ago found that there was no diversity in the voices and sources used by newsrooms.
The 2000 SAHRC report into racism in the media had concluded that newsrooms adopted a racist slant in their news gathering and presentation.
Some of Sanef’s senior members have been exposed as unethical crooks who posed as journalists for self-enrichment, while others used their positions to play politics.
You would think Ngalwa would be preoccupied with these and other cerebral editorial matters. But, no, Sanef’s obsession with Independent Media would not allow him. And the fact that Mkhuma and I aren’t even members seems to be an unforgivable sin.
The less said about the Daily Maverick (DM) the better. Its owner, Branko Brkic, has repeatedly refused to reveal who bankrolls his donor-funded news portal amid rumours he has been given R51m by secret funders who determine the news agenda.
Given that nobody knows who funds DM, what they have been promised in return, any criticism from the news portal is suspicious.
As for Jansen, his tone deaf and manufactured consent are well documented.
In 2009, I covered his inauguration as the new UFS principal. Contrary to expectations, Jansen announced that he would withdraw charges against four young racist students, known as the Reitz Four, who had fed Black university employees food laced with urine and made a video of the incident.
He didn’t seem to care about the plight of the humiliated victims. Neither did he seem to give a damn about the legitimate public outcry that followed the incident given the country’s past history of racial subjugation.
This deliberate tone deaf, and the delegitimization of some voices, may well be the reason why it took cricket legend Makhaya Ntini and other victims of sports racism many years to speak out.
It may well also be the reason why many people aren’t speaking out openly against the domination in management positions of white males, in breach of the Employment Equity Act. Why?
Because the likes of Ngalwa, Jansen, Poplak and Bezuidenhout would accuse them of xenophobia and racism, just to delegitimize them and manufacture consent.
* Piet Mahasha Rampedi is assistant editor of The Sunday Independent.