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!
- The Hypocrisy of it all