newritings

August 7, 2010

No left cover needed, comrade Jeremy

Filed under: opinion article — newritings @ 1:21 pm

(most of text last week after cde Cronin’s piece came in The Times)

just cronin
empowering voice

The articles by comrade Jeremy Cronin supporting the need for an independent media tribunal is giving coverage for an idea and an institution that may undermine the very principles I know Jeremy subscribes to. In this regard, he is providing left cover, a sugary pill for those who may genuinely want to undermine democracy and public accountability.

The need for an independent media tribunal resurfaced with much energy after a number of revelations about the lifestyles of particularly elected leaders in cabinet and, more generally, in government. In an interesting encounter, the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions Zwelinzima Vavi, relying on the media exposés by in particular the Mail and Guardian, dared two cabinet ministers to sue him, if they believe he was wrong. The two in question are Minister of Communications Simphiwe Nyanda and Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Sicelo Shiceko. Nyanda has been dogged by allegations of tender rigging, whilst Shiceko was inter alia accused of fiddling with his CV, and relating to staff in a manner not deemed to be respectful.

Every week we have been inundated with news of the misdemeanours, and in some cases abuse of power, of some persons in high office on their own or in an unholy alliance with corporations, national and international. Often the information has been passed on to the media by those with an agenda and/or a whistle-blower with genuine public interest at heart. Whatever the case may be, the public generally has been served by getting beyond the smoke or cloud and we have, at the end of the day, dealt with the real issues. Politicians and those power holders in the private sector must be held to account.

The proponents of a so-called media tribunal do not recognise these discussions as being in the public interest, and one can only surmise that these proposed less light will increase public accountability. I beg to differ: I fear that any attempt to stop activism resulting in diminishing the struggle for greater transparency and accountability will be bad for our democracy.

In my work as an activist in civil society (trade unions and NGOs), I have found leaders of some corporations as unscrupulous as some politicians when it comes to protecting their brand / their corporations. They do this not only through their ownership of some media agencies but also through their network and connections, their power to seduce, bribe and threaten – when appropriate. I have had occasion to take various media agencies both so called public (the SABC) and even the Sunday Times to the Broadcasting complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) and the Press Ombuds Office respectively. My engagement with the BCCSA has proven to be more problematic, and it may have to do with the fact that it is too close to the media players in that sector – the National Association of Broadcasters -, despite what it says on its website:

“Although the NAB provides the funds for the BCCSA, the BCCSA is, as a body corporate, entirely independent from the NAB.”

My experience with the latter, whilst it can be improved, was more interesting, as the Sunday Times was forced to apologise to the trade unions in a matter (which took months) where I believed public sector unions were unfairly portrayed if not maligned.

As you can see the issue for me is more complex: the SABC cannot remain praise singers of the government of the day and is yet to transform itself from being a state broadcaster into a truly public broadcaster. The struggle for media freedom, freedom of expression must involve us all: it is too important to be left to transforming, as important as it is, the print media. It must involve the SABC, and other broadcasters, the users of the services and government.

The private ownership and control of media remain largely unreformed, whilst the SABC has gone back, in some cases, to old familiar practices learned decades ago. It is also true that the media coverage of the unelected elites (viz private sector and celebrities) is far from critical, but hopefully the introduction of The New Age which will be aligned to the ruling party. It is my hope that they will, whilst praising the achievements of the government and the ruling party, spent some time to expose corporate greed and corruption. When they do this, they will invariably find that some comrades and ex Comrades will have to be there. How will they be covered is a matter to be seen; as we wait to see how former president Mbeki will be covered.

So when comrade Jeremy Cronin speaks of the orgiastic coverage by print media of COPE, he forgets that some of these very editors in some elections endorsed the ruling party, which was merely accepted with thanks. This included the editor of Business Day.

If the political motivations for the left for an independent Media tribunal, are couched in the language of diversifying ownership, enhancing the voices of the poor and marginalised voices, etc. – it will not happen. Such a tribunal will merely serve to once again give voice to the already powerful and empowered. What we need is more independent, quality journalism, a diversity of voices, and an active and critically engaged population.

It has been pointed out by many that the current proposals for an independent tribunal will lead to self censorship as well as to less accountability. The elites, both in government and in the private sector, must be held to account. So too must many of our institutions and organisations such as our government departments and institutions, the print media, our football associations, our political parties, our NGOs, and our SABC which has the greatest reach to our people. Sadly, the opposite will be guaranteed if the bill as it is goes through as is.what seems to bother many people that I speak to and work with, is that there is a lessening of the democratic space inside and outside many political parties, including the ruling party. This is clearly impacting on service delivery, and the further democratisation of our society. In addition, the Scorpions-like very public arrest of Mzilikazi wa Africa, a journalist (remember how many ANC leaders lobbied against this type of behaviour prior to Polokwane) specialising in a province where many politicos, were killed but with little police success adds to this climate of distrust that media space can be guaranteed by government. One unintended consequence of the bill, if it goes through, will be that media agencies with global links will run exposés of our body politic and thus the likes of the BBC, will once again be seen as authoritative, as the onerous obligations placed on national journalists will not apply to someone far away receiving confidential information.

So comrade Jeremy, for these few reasons, I do not think the media tribunal idea is a good one even if you think that it would work like some of the chapter 9 institutions. Reference to these institutions, opens up a hornets nest: a number of them are poorly resourced, and others have governmental interference that we would need to open a separate debate on them. The two you refer to (SA Human RIghts Commission and the Public Protector) are better perfoming better compared to the others, but not doing great in terms of their constitutional mandates. The 1994 ANC manifesto had this to say about the public protector under the heading “A New Style of Government” it read:

Government administration exists to serve the people. It must be answerable to them. The ANC will encourage private citizens to use the independent Public Protector to investigate corruption, dishonesty or violation of rules of conduct on the part of government officials – those found guilty will be dealt with. ” We await the Public Protector and the others to play to their full potential. Only more democracy, robust debate, criticism and self criticism will bolster and consolidate our democracy. Any move that is perceived to empower the already strong will not help.

 

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