Is the media too free?

I am a South African citizen currently living in the UK and I am concerned about both the proposed Media Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill. Why would I care if I live in the UK? I plan to move back to South Africa next year, so these changes to media freedom will affect me directly.

I may be concerned, but I am not sure where I stand with regards to the proposed changes.

My initial reaction to the Bill and the Tribunal was distrust. I distrust the ANC’s motives for these changes to media freedom. The reason I distrust their motives is because of statements made by ANC members. Statements such as these:

Jackson Mthembu: “Let’s start with the messenger. If the messenger is part of a DA [Democratic Alliance] onslaught on ministers, the messenger must be subject to sanctions.”

Floyd Shivambu: “The Media Tribunal should then begin with investigating Newspapers such as the City Press, Mail & Guardian, The Citizen, Sunday Times, The Times, most Afrikaans Newspapers (Die Burger & Rapport) and all Independent Group Newspapers to expose their ill-intentions and programme to sow divisions in the ANC and undermine its integrity. Some of the owners and directors of these Newspapers are active funders and leaders of opposition parties and this explains why the ANC and all its structures are under constant attack.”

It is clear from these words that the ANC are not trying to protect members of the public from an overzealous media. They are out to protect themselves. This is a personal feud between the ANC and the media, and by an interesting leap of fallacious reasoning, the opposition.

Which is a pity, because in my opinion media freedom as it stands does need looking at, and even changing.

I currently live in a so called “Western” country that prides itself on media freedom, that shudders at the thought of media restrictions. Look at Communism; look at Facism; look at South Africa during Apartheid, where media restrictions were used to influence and harm people, and to hide the truth of that harm from other people.

While I would not want to live under a regime of media censorship, I do not think we have to choose one of the extremes. Here in the UK the media is free to insult, exaggerate and make up more or less what it wants.

I once read a front page headline in one of the less reputable newspapers here that proclaimed (and I quote) “Maddie’s body burned” (referring to the Madeleine McCann abduction). I read the article, which spoke about a suspicious Portuguese pet incinerator, and that it was possible that Madeleine had been burned. Yes, it is also possible that she is on Mars, but the headline proclaimed fact, not speculation. I call this lying, or at least misrepresentation.

Journalists claim that to be shown respect by the media, you must first earn that respect. I fully agree with this statement. But surely to be shown disrespect by the media, you should first earn that disrespect.
Reporting on what celebs wear to the shops; showing us their zits, their cellulite – to me this is disrespectful of their privacy.

There is a celebrity in the UK, Leona Lewis; a reality show winner. She is a shy, clean living girl. She is a talented singer who has broken into the US and that is pretty much all you can report about her. But because she is famous and the media needs to use her popularity to sell their pages, they write spiteful little stories about how dull, insipid, and inane she and her love life are. Again, I say disrespect should be earned.

I admire the ‘freedom’ of the Western press when it is able to report or even uncover things like corruption and suspicious deaths. As has been pointed out, if someone like Steve Biko ever dies under police custody again, I want to know about it. But I do think that there is room for stricter regulation of the media in terms of respecting privacy.

Another thing that worries me about criticism of the proposed media restrictions is that there is a culture clash inherent in who supports these restrictions and who opposes them. As with everything in South Africa, it boils down to black and white.

This is reductive of course, but those who oppose the media restrictions tend to idealise the “Western” standard of media freedom. And in light of the proposed Bill, which does not specify which information the Government can deem classified, and how they can come to that decision, there is reason to be worried. The South African press has been muted before and they don’t want it muted again. I agree with this. But freedom comes at a price, and this price, this unregulated disrespect shown by the media, is difficult for some to stomach.

Those who support the Bill, and it appears that the majority of the country may fall under this category, tend to come from a so-called ‘African’ culture in which respect of elders and figureheads is sacrosanct. They argue that the media is disrespectful to the privacy of public figures, and that the current Press Ombudsman is ineffective at regulating transgressions. I cannot argue with this either.

For me, the biggest problem in South Africa is the cultural divide. People do not seem to be willing to take others’ cultural ways of thinking seriously. We need to acknowledge that both sides have very real, very valid concerns. Too many times I have read kneejerk online comments along the lines of ‘The Western/white way is right’ and ‘The African/black way leads to a failed state’.

There does not have to be an ‘either/or’ dichotomy. The Western ideal for media freedom as it functions now is in no way perfect. It can be improved. Those with “Western” leanings need to realise that they are in the minority in South Africa, and that compromise is the only way to progress in a way favourable to both parties. The ANC is right, the level of disrespect shown for the truth and for personal privacy is unacceptable as things stand.

In an ideal world the two extremes would come together to lead the way for a new improved standard of media freedom, perhaps along the lines of how our Constitution was written. But until people learn to take each other’s cultural concerns seriously, South Africa will continue to function as two countries within one border.

On a literary note I have just finished reading The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. One of the main themes of this historical novel is the influence of the media over events in the period from Trotsky’s assassination to McCarthyism in America. Throughout the book she highlights true instances in which the media was able to shape and in some cases directly influence the course of history, through selective, state-controlled, or just plain untrue reportage. Read it and tell me what you think about media freedom afterwards.

As I say I don’t know where I stand on media restrictions in South Africa. But if I were forced to choose between the two current extremes, I would choose media. In light of the statements from the ANC that I quoted earlier, the government is not acting with the interests of the people at heart. If I have to choose, I choose to know too much rather than too little, or what the government wants me to know. I want an alternative to the ANC-approved news.

We will have to let lawsuits guide the way when the media oversteps the mark.

I just hope I never become famous.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Po
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 18:57:25

    This is just me reposting this post because I had a copy saved on my computer. I think I edited it quite stringently the first time I posted it but I won’t bother this time. Also, all the comments have gone, sorry about that :( Don’t bother reading it again, I just want this post on my blog.


  2. Champagne Heathen
    Oct 13, 2010 @ 14:14:30

    I never managed to read this post, so I am happy its back up.

    I wouldn’t judge our society’s thoughts on any online comments. I am willing to say that the online comments concept has failed miserably. It’s not ordinary people passing interesting valid critical analysis, or even extremists fighting back. It is bored angry folk who are out to fight & will say any nonsense to cause that fight to get their adrenalin high fixed that day. At least extremists have conviction in their ideas. These people are trolls.

    I am now accepting that I will not base any assumptions on what I have read from “online commentators”. I won’t even base it on our very subjective sensational medias. If I want to make assumptions, or really know the truth, I will track down social scientific research reports.

    I hate people making claims around culture. I think as soon as that is done, an anthropologist who is an expert on that culture should be brought in to say whether this really is true or not & what factors are being left out/ ignored. And why the culture did exist like that, why they had those rules.

    Let alone the fluidity of culture, people (politicians in particular) too often say “this is our culture”, but conveniently leave out the other parts of that culture that don’t suit their argument.

    Added to this, most western cultures do have a history/culture of respecting one’s elders, so I never understand that one. Or why western culture is lumped together. South African white folk are a diverse bunch of cultures within themselves, and considering how unstable our society is right now, any cultures are changing daily at the moment. There cannot be a white south african culture. …well, unless you can find a good objective anthropologist to dispute me on this. Same goes for any other race in SA. But as you say, fok, can we merge the races & look in other ways!

    Po, I agree, this is the ANC vs the Media. If the activity could get back to being about The State (expressely divorced from the ANC) and the media, then perhaps some noble outcomes could occur. But that’s me living in an ideal headspace…!


  3. Claudine
    Oct 13, 2010 @ 14:20:05

    I lived under apartheid media restrictions. As a result, 99% of the atrocities that happened from 1948 onwards I never learned about until the 80s. All due to media restrictions. The government then, as now, used the media to their own advantage. It’s sad that this is even being contemplated.


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