Bring on the media tribunal

With the current debate going on in South Africa about the government’s plans for a media tribunal, it is imperative that we revisit the issue of media freedom and its importance for the health of a nation and its democracy. Media freedom seems to be an issue that has come up quite frequently in recent times on the continent, with particular focus on countries such as: Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Sudan. It seems that African states are notorious for their contemptuous disregard for media freedom and their dislike for any form of criticism against governing elites. The questions that come to mind are as follows: how important is media freedom for the health of fledgling African democracies? What role should independent, free media play in the development and upkeep of the nation-state? Should the media be held accountable for what they report and how they report it, and if so by whom? In South Africa the media seems to have arrogated to itself the role of defenders of our constitutional democracy, by focussing on exposing all forms of government incompetence and corruption. It seems as if media freedom has been reduced to nothing but the freedom to find as much fault as possible with government and the ruling party, without necessarily contributing anything constructive to the enhancement of the nation-state project. As the English philosopher John Locke said, “It is one thing to show a man that he is in error, and another to put him in possession of the truth.” The media seems to be happy to focus on revealing error without necessarily pointing the way to truth in a constructive manner. The media seems to believe that its freedom is sacrosanct, without necessarily having embraced the responsibility that comes with that freedom. Surely any form of freedom must have parameters and boundaries within which it operates, otherwise it becomes destructive? I’m reminded of the Carl Niehaus story which broke last year and the media rightfully exposed Niehaus for the fraud that he is, but at some point the reporting stopped being about exposing a corrupt public official and became personal, vindictive and completely destructive.  It almost seemed as if the media were out to find out every wrong thing that Niehaus had done throughout his life and to put it in the public forum with the aim of completely destroying him without any regard for his humanity. I remember thinking to myself that the media had crossed the line between reporting on a matter of public interest and completely ruining someone. Where was the ethical, responsible reporting in all this? By the same token when the ANC Youth League came up with allegations of corruption and bribery against some journalists earlier this year, the media completely refused to entertain these allegations on the basis that one of their own was being attacked and that media freedom was under attack as a result. This smacked of double standards as it seemed to indicate that journalists and media people are above reproach simply by virtue of the industry in which they work. I found this to be appalling as we all know that journalists are quick to run with a story and investigate any allegations of corruption against any politician but when one of their own is attacked suddenly it is an attack on press freedom and we should all be alarmed. It almost seems as if press freedom is limited to the freedom to attack the government and to find as much fault with government and ruling party officials as possible. This then calls into question the objectivity of our media and seriously places in doubt the argument for self-regulation that press freedom advocates are always putting forward. As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “newspapers are the second hand of history. This hand, however is usually not only of inferior metal to the other hands, it also seldom works properly.” To propose that the media should be left to regulate itself is as preposterous as suggesting that the government should be accountable to no one but itself and that it should be a self-regulating mechanism with no external checks and balances. Media, like government is run by people, individuals who are as equally corruptible, equally self-promoting and equally prone to self-preservation as government and public officials are. You don’t need to be an expert on human nature to figure this out. The implication being that left to itself, the media, just like the government will run amok and this necessitates an external form of regulation which could easily be the proposed media tribunal in South Africa. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” It would appear that the media has become so accustomed to fighting this so-called monster (the government), that the media itself has become an uncontrollable, irresponsible monster, having the power to destroy reputations, careers, lives and families and yet refusing to be held to account by society. This is the highest form of hypocrisy which the media cannot be allowed to get away with. An independent, free media is an important part of any healthy society, but this independence does not equate to lack of accountability to society, In the interests of the highly celebrated democratic values of accountability and transparency the media must allow itself to be regulated externally and there must be an external watchdog that will safeguard the interests of society as relates to the media, just like we demand of politicians and any public servants who have the power  to influence society for better or for worse. The poet W.H Auden put it so aptly when he said, “what the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten and replaced by a new dish.” Media in South Africa has been reduced to nothing but entertainment, with people’s lives being dissected and every ounce of their personal lives being splashed across the front pages and whilst one may argue that all politicians and public figures should not complain as this is part of the package they sign up for, one has to look at the human cost of some of the irresponsible reporting and to ask oneself whether the kind of society we are trying to build is accurately reflected in this kind of phenomenon.  There is a definite distinction between reporting on issues that are of public concern and completely destroying individual’s lives under the guise of upholding and defending our democratic freedoms and in many instances the media tends to cross this line with the self-regulatory mechanism proving ineffective in curbing this kind of cavalier journalism in all its irresponsibility. To quote the words of Luthando Tofu, “It is much easier for people to believe and embrace what they read or see on television than the very reality in which they live in.” Given the truthfulness of this statement, the media has massive impact in terms of affecting people’s opinions and outlooks on key issues affecting a nation and for that reason the media cannot be simply allowed to regulate itself, without some form of external, independent accountability to society, so maybe the call for an official media tribunal is not such a bad thing after all.  We can’t allow ourselves to place too much confidence in any one of the different pillars that strengthen our democracy (media being one of them) and it is imperative that all these pillars are independently regulated, to safeguard against the human tendency for self-promotion and preservation and as an important pillar in a healthy democracy external supervision of the media can only enhance and strengthen its role in society. I end off with the words of the English novelist George Orwell, “early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.” Bring on that media tribunal!
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Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

11 thoughts on “Bring on the media tribunal

  • August 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm
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    While I deplore sensationalist media as much as the next guy (except for readers of “Die Son”), I fear a media tribunal would simply criminalise investigative journalism. This is most evident in that topics like the arms deal scandal would never have seen the light of day – especially if publishing “confidential” information carries a proposed prison sentence of 25 years.

    I also have to question whether the media tribunal will have the desired effect. “Confidential” documents will still be leaked, except this time the reporting would be driven underground to even more dubious places (like the internet) where rumours will be even more rife.

    With this media tribunal, the government risks creating a wikileaks (http://wikileaks.org) type media that is even more uncontrollable and irrevocably damaging.

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  • August 8, 2010 at 8:37 pm
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    Julian my greatest concern is the irresponsible, sensationalist reporting that has come to characterise most of our media of late. I am aware that the media has played a great role in exposing corruption and bringing important matters to the fore but I still don’t think it excuses some of the blatant “cheap shot” journalism that has become prevalent and I think it is clear that self-regulation has failed and an independent tribunal made up of representatives from different sectors of society (including politicians) may be more objective than the current system’s press ombudsman who in my opinion has been ineffective in preventing some blatant misrepresentations by the media which are just meant to sensationalise and make a profit for media houses irrespective of the human cost.

    I just think the media has become the very thing it purports to be fighting against and we in society need a mechanism to hold the media accountable for its reporting just like we should demand greater accountability from politicians as well and so I don’t necessarily think a media tribunal is a bad idea, the key will be how it is implemented and who makes up that tribunal.

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  • August 8, 2010 at 10:03 pm
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    I can understand your viewpoint on the tribunal – regulation is needed. Whether it’s in the form of the proposed tribunal, I have yet to make my mind up. It has the tendency to be politicised, causing government detractors to get the short end of the stick.

    And to be honest, I prefer the occasional sensationalist story with the ability to expose tenderpreneurship, nepotism and cronyism to that of a completely censored media that’s not allowed to function independently or report freely. The consequence of a sensationalist story might, as you rightly point out, lead to “destroying” a person’s life (whatever that might mean);however, that is by far more preferable than having government cronies “destroy” a whole country by being able to censor stories that might cause them shame, or at the very least, discomfort.

    Perhaps if the tribunal did not coincide with the SAPS disastrous handling of wa Afrika’s arrest as well as with the resurgence of the revised information bill, it would have been considered more objectively. At the moment, anything the government would like to do with media (irrespective of intentions), will smack of apartheid era censure.

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  • August 8, 2010 at 10:56 pm
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    I understand your concerns Julian. They are valid concerns but my view is that the media can’t be pushing for government and other sectors of society to be more accountable and open and then cry foul when the same standard is demanded of them. Media is run by people, human beings like you and I, who are as corruptible and corrupt as politicians and anyone else in society. For that reason they also need some external accountability to society and not just “self-regualtion” by some other media person or group. We wouldn’t accept self-regulation as sufficient for any government department or any other politician so why do we accept it when it comes to media? The media has so much power to influence society and to shape opinions so to leave it completely unregulated is completely wrong in my book based on its impact and influence. I don’t think the proposed tribunal would be necessarily “politicised” per se. It could be made up of respected citizens from different sectors of SA society and that would only enhance media accountability to society in my books.

    I think we should be focussing more on the make-up of the media tribunal than arguing over whether it is right or wrong for SA to have a media tribunal. I think it is self-serving for the media to be completely opposed to this and I don’t blame them for taking that stance and trying to get society to sympathise with them, but I tend to think that a tribunal could be great, if it is made up of the right people. It can only help increase the quality of journalism in this country and I think would have the effect of raising journalistic standards.

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  • August 8, 2010 at 11:54 pm
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    Hmmm, following your arguments I agree that a media tribunal might have value. However, the theory and good intentions of a media tribunal, as highlighted by your suggestion that it consists of respected members of society, if often marred by the current politics in SA.

    I fear that a media tribunal, as with SRC’s in various SA universities, will merely become another political battlefield where the members (that’s supposed to have the best media / country intentions at heart) fight for their party representation. Moreover, I see it as yet another instance where bureaucratic red tape is created for the sake of political correctness and blurring of truth.

    We’ve got enough over-the-top laws already, including but not restricted to the Privacy Act, Defamation Act,and the Constitution of SA… If these laws cannot govern the media, what makes you put your faith in a tribunal that in all probably will be yet another corrupt parastatal?

    Hear me out, I’m not saying a tribunal is bad in and of itself, I’m just wondering whether a government funded one is the best route? Moreover, should it not be us as “concerned” citizens calling for a tribunal as opposed to that of the prominent heads of political parties?

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  • August 9, 2010 at 8:57 am
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    I have to agree with you on the risk of “politicisation” which is always a concern in SA unfortunately. Recent history suggests that this is a serious and a genuine threat but I am hoping that sanity prevails (maybe I’m expecting too much) and the tribunal is made up of respected SA citizens, which would only enhance our democracy.

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    • August 10, 2010 at 2:17 pm
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      I agree with your argument and also believe there should be regulation, especially with the way SA media has slipped into the gutter in recent times.

      My main concern though is that in South Africa, things become so politicised very easily. Already, it’s the ANC and Youth League – not the government per se – that’s calling on the tribunal. That in itself doesn’t inspire much confidence in whether the make-up of this tribunal, should it go through, will be independent and unbiased. I feel it further highlights government’s increasing tendency to cause a blur between Luthuli House and Parliament/Union Buildings (excuse my lack of knowledge) – I hear far more ANC calling on things in places I’d expect government to be the voice.

      What are your thoughts on how this tribunal should be put together and how to counteract these risks of bias etc.? I do think it’s very ambitious to hope that sanity will prevail, but then I can’t oppose or judge that hope.

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  • August 21, 2010 at 7:07 pm
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    Couldn’t agree with you more Mugabe.

    Understand the concerns that have been raised as well, but surprised that some are not contesting the content of the bills and tribunal but rather are calling this the death of democracy and other sensationalist statements. Further proof to me off how media has been used for individual interests rather than for good.

    We should be making sure that the bill does not allow for any individuals including the government to use it for their own interests. I don’t see how just by virtue of the media appeals tribunal media will not be allowed or free to expose corruption etc.

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  • August 26, 2010 at 8:04 pm
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    I agree that the publishing houses are also flawed, that our society needs to police their good conduct too. But we already have an institution to address excesses: the courts.

    Why do we need a NEW institution, one that seems almost certain to become yet another partisan apparatus?

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  • August 27, 2010 at 11:31 am
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    @Bernd,the problem is not the courts.It is the “self-regulatory” mechanisms,like the Press Ombudsman,which by the media’s own admission have been highly ineffective in curbing irresponsible,innacurate,misleading reporting all done deliberately in order to promote certain individual or group agendas thru the media.Hence the call for an independent,objective media tribunal made up of people from a different sectors of society such as:media,politicians,civil society etc.I really do not see how such a tribunal wud threaten press freedom in this country if so constituted.I think it wud enhance journalism in this country if anything and it cud be something that the rest of the world could learn from us in terms of how to make media accountable in an objective manner without having to rely on ineffective “self-regulation.”

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