Friday 1 March 2024

Is the media fulfilling its role in promoting South African democracy?

By Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

As we observed the second week of Lent, and as the Bishops of the Province met in Episcopal Synod this week to reflect and speak to church and society, our lections demanded of us that we be alert, that we take seriously how our behaviours affect others and, when they are not conducive to abundant life in God, that we amend them.

In the latest of my series of reflections on the state of society from a faith perspective, I examine how the media is taking stock of its role and measuring up to what we require of it in our current circumstances.

It is an unfortunate reflection on the quality of debate in Parliament that real political life in South Africa is to be found on the streets and in the media. Three decades into democracy, as we gear up for our seventh national and provincial elections, we need to ask: are the media facilitating or hindering the growth of democracy in our country?

A decade ago I was privileged to serve under the former Chief Justice, Pius Langa, as a commissioner of the Press Freedom Commission, which was appointed to recommend how best to ensure that the press adheres to the highest ethical standards.

So to help answer my question on the media’s performance, I have solicited the views of a range of media professionals – former editors of print and broadcast media, journalism academics, board members and ombuds – and tested them against the demands articulated by the commission.

In the commission’s report, we defined our primary objective as being “To ensure press freedom in support of enhancing our democracy which is founded on human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedom..."

We were of course guided by the principles of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, including media freedom and the rights of everyone to impart information or ideas.

Now the Constitution does not include in its definition of these freedoms the requirement that speech or private publications need to be fair or balanced, or even that they be truthful. We are free, for example, to promote propaganda in support of our ideas. In recent years, as well as those publications which print propaganda, we have seen the phenomenal growth of social media outlets, which – when used well – have helped ordinary people to realise the Constitution's promise of free speech. (In the church, for example, our members don't hesitate to hold us to account on Twitter and Facebook.)

But propaganda, like the fake news and toxic debate we see on social media, is of no value in promoting human dignity, equality and the advancement of human rights. Nor is it of any use at all in helping voters provide the reliable and truthful information they need to make informed choices at election time.

Fortunately, we have in South Africa private and public media committed under the codes of conduct of the Press Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to publishing truthful information and diverse views. When operating at their best, they are independently edited by experienced professional journalists who are neither mere tools of their bosses and shareholders, nor hijacked by politicians.

Journalists with inflated opinions of their influence are often brought back to earth by research which says that what they publish rarely changes the minds of their readers and viewers. That said, the media set agendas: they tell us what to think about, how long we should be thinking and talking about something and they can influence how we think about something.

Ideally, they hold those in power accountable and enable democracy by giving voters the information they need to become, as Mamphela Ramphele has said, “active citizens” instead of “passive subjects”. Unlike newspapers during the apartheid era, which were often banned and always constrained by more than 100 laws, they can promote transparency to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

In short, the media in South Africa have demonstrated that they have the power to influence individual beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, choices and decisions. But in one area that is crucial to the effective growth of democracy in South Africa, they fall short: most of our print, online and broadcast outlets speak to or reflect the interests of social and political elites.

In the Press Freedom Commission's 2012 report, we noted that “Diversity of content in the media is essential to ensure that the voices and opinions of all South Africans are heard." When it came to print journalism, we added: "It has been noted that the voices of some sections of the population are seldom heard in newspapers. The increased urbanisation of the print media has resulted from the concentration of both advertising and editorial imperatives on the large urban areas where larger newspapers are situated. Even national newspapers focus more on urban news. This results in fewer voices of rural people being published.”

Has the situation improved since then? There have been some positive developments: online or print outlets financed by philanthropic foundations and trusts which respect the independence of editors, and which – within their limited means – try to publish news about those otherwise ignored.

But traditional print media is in grave financial straits. Newspaper circulations have plummeted in the past decade and although there is growth in online news, it competes with the unreliable content seen on social media. Reporters who continue to travel to smaller towns and rural areas deserve praise and support but many papers cover their lack of ability to put reporters on the ground by running opinion pieces from politicians or academics.

With some exceptions, the media are not good at covering those whom they do not see in front of them – the 40 percent or so who still live in former “homeland” areas. And if you came to South Africa from another planet, you might think you had arrived on another continent, so little news from the rest of Africa – even crisis-hit, war-torn regions – would you see or hear.

The picture in broadcasting is not much better.

A former media executive who helped launch a new commercial broadcast venture tells me that at the outset their stated aim was to give a voice to the marginalised. But within months, the “market” taught them that it was not the marginalised, or even “the workers”, who bought new cars or bakkies – if the station wanted to attract advertising from businesses to sustain itself, it had to avoid antagonising them, so ended up paying lip service to the poor.

For its part, public broadcasting is not realising its full potential. Another former executive gave me chapter and verse of how the SABC’s transformation in the early 1990s from a state broadcaster into a public one has soured.

Under the visionary leadership of the late Zwelakhe Sisulu, the SABC began building a new, inclusive public broadcaster which aimed to develop a professional and fair news service that reached the poorest of communities around the country. But two crucial developments served to shift their focus.

First, political interference began to take place after the 2004 election when, for example, the news department began to spend vast sums, not on getting reporters to rural areas or uncovering problems with poor township schools, but instead on covering senior politicians on myriad overseas trips. Censorship was reinstated, with prominent experts on Zimbabwe banned from the airwaves. Then financial disaster hit during the reign of the political deployee, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

I speak frequently to SABC journalists who are consummate professionals, and broadcasting experts acknowledge that the SABC is challenged not only by poor governance and corruption – its onerous public service mandate is largely unfunded and so it has to rely on advertising for most of its revenue.

But its response to the financial crisis was to undermine the reforms of the 1990s. An example of this can be seen in radio, the medium which can do the most to represent and reflect the interests of the poor.

With about 37 million people relying on it as their main source of news, radio has more listeners than print media has readers, reaching every corner of the country, both urban and rural. In the 1990s, the SABC established an integrated news team that could report all the news to every station in each of our 11 official languages.

But in response to the financial crisis, news and current affairs programmes in prime-time slots were cancelled and the time was given to talk shows. Call-in shows can be deceptive. Listeners may think they are getting “news” but phone-ins are not the same as news reports, which to stand up to scrutiny, have to be verified, balanced, and fair.

Commercial stations, whether private or public, generally fill their time with call-in shows because “talk is cheap and news is expensive.” In effect, listeners provide free content. It is expensive to send reporters out to far-flung, or even local areas.

As a result of this change of focus, it is effectively the elites whose voices get heard: listeners with air-time and the opportunity to call in, politicians, academics and business leaders.

Journalism is a key and central feature of a democracy. Without it, leaders are largely left unaccountable and the voices of the poor are unheard. We have been blessed in South Africa with a free and often robust media which have done an outstanding job in recent years of exposing corruption and misrule, as well as a judiciary with integrity that has withstood political pressures.

But right now, and especially leading up to the May 29 elections, the greatest challenge facing the media is to step away from being an interlocutor between the middle classes – both old and new elites – and reflect those who are still struggling to be citizens.

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