Freedom of the media in a changing South Africa: the role of self-regulation.
Talk given to the Cape Town Press Club on the occasion of the Barry Streek Memorial lecture June 27, 2019
Members of the Cape Town Press Club, chair Brent Meersman, the committee of the CTN Press Club, my guest Alide Dasnois, who won the Nat Nakasa award for courageous journalism almost exactly five years ago, and guests, thank you very much for doing the honour of inviting me to deliver the Barry Streek Memorial lecture.
There are few journalists of my generation, or older, who can’t forget Barry – his endless energy, his commitment to human rights, and his tireless parliamentary coverage for 25 years.
He saw the darkest days of apartheid, the transition, and the new democracy that emerged under the Mandela government.
Barry began his career in the volatile Eastern Cape, where his mother Deena, was an active member of the Black Sash. The tiny and beleaguered Black Sash in the region worked with journalists who cared about human rights, as Barry did, to expose some of the more heinous crimes of the apartheid government there – the dumping grounds euphemistically named resettlement camps for those who were removed from either white farms or so-called “black spots” in re-declared white areas, mainly in the 60s and 70s.
The Eastern Cape was also a great incubator of resistance against apartheid, and many of the older generation of the ANC – Nelson Mandela, Rev Canon Calata, Govan Mbeki and his son, Thabo, Oliver Tambo – were among those who came from there.
The first black-run newspaper in South Africa, Imvo Zabantsundu, was also published there – in KWT and its first editor was Tengo Jabavu, an educationist, writer and politician.
It was also there, in the dark days of the 1980s, that communities began to organize themselves to resist apartheid and were viciously targeted for doing so.
Last night I facilitated the launch of the book of another courageous journalist, Jo-Ann Bekker. It is ostensibly a book of fiction – of short stories – but any journalist of that generation will recognize her description of Cradock at the time. I was reminded there, partly by the attendance of Lukhanyo Calata, the son of Fort Calata, that today is the 34th anniversary of the “disappearance” of the Cradock Four, Fort, Matthew Goniwe, Sicelo Mhlawuli and Sparrow Mkhonto. Their badly battered bodies were discovered two days later, and their funeral – in July 1985 – attended by about 60 000 people – heralded the start of the last great crackdown of the apartheid government, the State of Emergency.
In her short-story, entitled What Nombuyiselo said, Bekker writes of her fictional character: “Of all the places Rip worked as a journalist she felt most awake in Cradock. Most alive. A witness to the extraordinary mobilization of an entire community. Even the toddlers raised defiant, clenched fists. “
It was the New Nation newspaper that broke the story in 1992 of a security forces “signal” ordering the “permanent removal from society” of three of the four men who were killed. It was radio journalists who captured the wail of grief that emanated from Nomonde Calata the widow of Fort, at one of the first Human Rights hearings of the TRC in 1996. Nomonde was only 26 when he was killed.
Bekker herself had worked for the Eastern Province Herald and the iconic picture of four Cradock activists, including Goniwe and Calata (the other two were not in the car waylaid by police) was taken by Jack Cooper the Herald photographer at the time. It was taken the day after they had been released from detention. “The picture says free again,” writes Bekker in her short story. “It says these are the gentle men the government calls terrorists.”
I mention these cases, and this anniversary, to highlight the role of some of the press, as constrained as it was by apartheid, in the ongoing battle for democracy and human rights.
Ironically, Fort’s son Lukhanyo, in his book with his wife Abigail,. My Father Died for This, highlights some of the egregious transgressions of that democracy just a few years ago at the public broadcaster where he worked as a journalist at the time.
The broadcaster, and the country, is still paying the price for those transgressions, as we see daily.
The role of the media in a democracy is always complicated and always contested.
Outside Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where I studied, there is a statue of Thomas Jefferson. He famously said: “If it were left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Yet to think he kept his hands off them would be to fictionalize history.
Jefferson was one of the first Americans to actively try to ensure a good press for himself, writes Christopher Hitchens in his biography of Jefferson (“Tomas Jefferson: Author of America”, Atlast Books/Harper Collins Publishers, 2005).
Partly, this was driven by an almost deadly rivalry between himself and the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, a rivalry replicated in opposing newspapers that supported one or the other.
Neither was shy to use editorial manipulation, in the form of withholding or granting government advertising to the newspapers that either angered or pleased them. (In South Africa, a few years ago, there was outrage among members of the Fourth Estate when Essop Pahad, then the Minister in the Presidency, threatened to withdraw government advertising from the Sunday Times after a series of articles that had particularly displeased government). We have seen in evidence to the Zondo Commission how the Gupta family pressurized government departments to redirect their considerable advertising budget to its own paper The New Age or to its ill-conceived and hammily run television channel, ANN7.
The Constitution of the United States, drawn up after its revolution, enshrined freedom of the press as its first amendment in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
It was a clause that effectively prohibited even an overwhelming majority in Congress from muzzling the press.
In South Africa, too after a long struggle for liberation, our Constitution included a clause that guaranteed freedom of expression for all its citizens. It specifically includes “freedom of the press and other media”. There is a rider in our Constitution, though, that this freedom does not extend to incitement to violence, propaganda for war, or advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion. “
After coming through the restrictions and dangers of apartheid, many journalists today feel this clause is profoundly significant. Yet even after democracy, there have been indications that not everyone in the governing party regard this clause as sacrosanct.
This is not unusual in new democracies.
To go back to the example of the United States post-revolution,:until the early 19th century, editors and journalists were still being charged under seditious libel laws, inherited from the British. In seditious libel, truth was no defence. In fact, to print something “libellous” that was actually true was considered a worse offence because the damage was greater. In 1803, as Tony Lewis, the former New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer-Prize winning author writes: “Harry Croswell, an editor in New York was prosecuted under seditious libel for an attack on Thomas Jefferson. His story, in an aptly named newspaper called The Wasp, said that while vice president under John Adams, Jefferson had paid a journalist to write “savage assaults on Adams and Washington.” (Lewis, Anthony, “Freedom for the Thought we Hate: A biography of the First Amendment”, Basic Books, 2007). The said journalist had called Washington a “traitor, a robber and a perjurer”.
Croswell was convicted but got out of jail a year later when the New York legislature made truth a legitimate defence against libel charges.
In 1798, John Adams, the second president signed into law the Sedition Act . He set it to expire on March 3 1801, the day before a new President was to be inaugurated.
Ten people were convicted for sedition during his Presidency, oddly enough all supporters of Adam’s rival Jefferson.
Funnily enough too, soon after Jefferson came to power “he like Adams developed doubts about the unbounded liberty of the press”, as New Yorker writer Jill Lepore put it. Days after his election, he complained that printers “live by the zeal they can kindle and the schisms they can create.” Jefferson wanted under his government “a union of opinion”.
Does this sound familiar?
Partly because of our knowledge of history but probably more by instinct, journalists in South Africa have been very resistant to attempts to control the press, even by such seemingly innocent sounding bodies such a Chapter 9 body that would effectively be a Media Appeals Tribunal and report to Parliament.
The Press Council under which the Office of the Ombudsman falls, has its roots in a thoughtful attempt to resist this kind of control.
Several veteran journalists, including Joe Thloloe, former Ombudsman, and the late Ray Louw, a media freedom stalwart, were key figures behind the formation of a body that would mediate complaints from the public about the media.
A brief history of the Press Council shows some of the thought behind its creation.
It takes as its starting point both the plethora of restrictive laws against the press under apartheid, especially the latter days of the State of Emergency, and the 1996 Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression.
In 2012, at the time of the Polokwane conference and when the ANC was agitating for a Media Appeals Tribunal, the late Justice Pius Langa chaired a Press Freedom Commission; it was out of this that the Press Council, as we know it today, was born.
One important difference with its predecessor, the Office of the Ombudsman, was that the waiver that complainants had to sign undertaking not to sue, was done away with because the Judge found it was unconstitutional to deny anyone the right of access to a court of law.
The process also reconstituted the Press Council to comprise media and public representatives. Three retired judges play a key role in the Council: Judge Philip Levinsohn chairs it (the late Ray Louw was vice chair), Judge Bernard Ngoepe chairs the appeals panel, and Judge Yvonne Mokgoro chairs the appointments panel – of both the Press Council and its officials such as myself.
It is a small office comprising an Executive Director, Latiefa Mobara, the Public Advocate Joe Latakgomo, a case officer Khanyi Mndaweni and two support staff: small because we are entirely funded by the media industry itself which is, as we know, under intense financial pressure at the moment.
One of our biggest newspaper groups, Independent, withdrew from the Press Council in 2016 and appointed its own Ombudsman. The reason they gave was because of the waiver been withdrawn by the Press Council. But access to courts is a constitutional right. Moreover, in reality, very few people actually have the time, inclination or resources to sue. In the years since the PC has been (re) established only three people have sued, our Executive Director, Latiefa Mobara, tells me: one person asked for R300K and settled for R10K, another abandoned his suit, and the third took it all the way to the High Court and then the day before the case was due to be heard settled for a letter of apology, and from the reporter, not even the editor.
This is out of the approximately 500 complaints a year we receive.
The PC and the Ombud play a critical role in keeping the media free both by staving off government interference but also by keeping journalists to a Code of ethics and conduct on an entirely voluntary basis.
The preamble to that Code reads:
- “As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the public. This means always striving for the truth, avoiding unnecessary harm, reflecting a multiplicity of voices in our coverage of events, showing special concern for children and other vulnerable groups, and exhibiting sensitivity to the cultural customs of their readers and the subjects of their reportage, and acting independently.”
These are sentiments that accord with the Elements of Journalism, spelt out simply and eloquently in the eponymous book by Bill Kovach, past NY Times Washington correspondent and curator of the Nieman Foundation, and Tom Rosenstiel (The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, revised edition, Three Rivers Press, 2007) The elements include:
- Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
- Its first loyalty is to citizens
- Its essence is a discipline of verification
- Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover; and
- It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
These sound easy to say but they are hard to maintain, especially given some of the threats our media industry face today.
Among these are financial threats. Circulations have dropped sharply in the past decade. The Sunday Times for instance, one of the biggest selling weeklies, is on about 250 000 circulation according to the third quarter 2018 figures compared with over 400 000 a decade ago; most newspapers show a similar decline. As margins have become squeezed, newsrooms have been trimmed and reporters are often rushed and over-burdened. Those simple-sounding elements, such as the discipline of verification, are often the first to suffer in a climate such as this. The pile of red folders on my desk that are complaints about the media are testimony to this.
Then there is the spread of fake news, often through social media sites such as Twitter, which is not subject to the Press Code unless it happens to be a member newspaper tweeting. There is no verification at all involved in disseminating much of the news we see on Twitter; and talk radio, the cheapest form of radio always preferred by commercial broadcasters and now, sadly, substituting for most news and current affairs by the public broadcaster, is also free to abandon the discipline of verification. Listeners are blessed with a plurality of opinions, including the presenters, but we do not get much in the way of basic news, whether from courts or Parliaments and the institutions that underpin our democracy.
The recent court victory of Trevor Manuel against the EFF on the basis of what they alleged on Twitter about the appointment of the new SARS commissioner is perhaps a salutary lesson in accountability including on this fast-moving medium.
Worse, in terms of news coverage, is the almost complete lack of focus on areas outside this “chattering” circle, such as rural areas.
I was lucky enough to spend five years at UCT working under Professor Murray Leibbrandt a preeminent researcher of the drivers of inequality and poverty. We do not really see the poorest of the poor reflected in our media. The poorest 20 municipal wards according to a study by Professor Michael Noble, are all in the old “homeland” areas of KZN or the Eastern Cape, with the exception of one in Limpopo. The poorest ward is in Port St Johns in the Transkei and Nkandla, in KZN, famous for other reasons, is number 20 on the list.
And a major driver of inequality is unemployment, but few of the Twitterati or talk show hosts manage to convey accurate information about this. So we hear much about graduate unemployment when in fact the most vulnerable group are young people who have never finished matric – where the rate is nearly two thirds – or even those with matric, where about 54% of young people are unemployed. And in this country about half of those who start school don’t make it to matric. It is a shameful statistic that shapes our country’s future, but are the media, mainly urban-based, doing enough to reflect this?
With some exceptions, we are not good at covering those whom we do not see in front of us – the 40% or so who still live in old homeland areas.
Neither are we particularly good at covering scientific stories although I believe we are getting better.
George Classen, the Media24 Ombudsman wrote an article recently about the fact that pursuit of truth in stories to do with climate change or vaccination should not rely on the usual right of reply as do other stories: one is not conveying a truth by giving climate change denialists equal space with scientists.
A couple of weeks ago, You magazine ran a story about a young rugby player who had suffered a spinal cord injury and who had been treated with stem-cell therapy and had recovered and was now getting married.
A medical professor from UP called me, an expert in stem-cell therapy, to say the science did not support a causal effect between the therapy and cure. In fact he was concerned about a new scam he called “stem-cell therapy tourism” where people were being induced to part with their money in pursuit of dubious cures.
To its credit, News24 responded quickly and positively when I called them and interviewed the professor and published important scientific information.
All the criticisms noted, it is important to commend the media for its critical work in exposing the vast tentacles of the State Capture project drawing from the leaked tranche of what’s has become known as the Gupta emails. The service to democracy has been undeniable.
Likewise the sterling work on the looting of the VBS bank, its effect on municipalities and the almost complete collapse of SARS under the Zuma administration.
It is noteworthy though that often this has happened through funded journalism projects whose focus is investigative journalism, driven in part by the maverick and feisty Daily Maverick.
However, this extraordinary and commendable work does not mean that the “ordinary” work of daily journalism should see its standards or commitment drop.
We need to always be on our guard against not only government but corporate interference. The Press Council and the Ombud are shields in this battle. But the media, if it does not strive for credibility and trust, can undermine itself just as effectively.
The most important currency of journalism is trust. In conclusion, I would like to quote Franz Kruger, adjunct professor of Journalism at Wits, who wrote about this recently in The Conversation:
“In an era of fake news, that trust is harmed not only by what the media themselves may do, but by what is done by pedlars of misinformation, who are often hard to distinguish from professional journalists.
“A loss of trust may in the long run cause more harm to journalism than the repressive tactics of past decades.”