Can ‘patriotism’ be forced on us?
This continuation of last week’s essay on media patriotism looks at the futility and danger of state control
One thing that’s wonderful about South Africa is the lack of censorship in the statute books, save for when it’s for the protection of children and against hate speech. As indicated, the government’s attempt to curb media freedom has borne meagre results. The new strategy is economic manipulation: withdraw government notices and varied adverts from those newspapers that are deemed unpatriotic or that subscribe to higher patriotism (according to our definition) and allocate all the advertising revenue to sweetheart outlets. This practice is not unique to the ANC government. South Africa has seen it in the Western Cape as well, where the DA wields power, which illustrates how prone to the arrogance of power politicians of all ideological orientations are.
The government has subsidised The New Age – owned and operated by cronies of the president – from its founding through mass subscriptions, state advertising and giving it unlimited exposure via the highly sponsored New Age breakfasts on the SABC’s TV channels.
Deals of this nature will continue to be enjoyed by sweetheart media. Control by advert
In addition, the government has announced that soon it will advertise only in its own paper, Vuk’uzenzele, published by the Government Communication and Information System. Here the government is cutting its nose to spite its face. Advertising is not charity: government is not doing the newspapers any favours by advertising in them. The ultimate customer of a commercial newspaper is the advertiser. The commodity it is selling? You, the reader. To sell you effectively, the newspaper should cater for you, first, so that you agree to be sold – since, unlike a loaf of bread or pint of milk, you are a willing commodity and have choice, unless you are in a “captive audience” situation. The newspaper delivers its readers to government messages, and these readers are of specific demographics, depending on the reach and editorial content of the individual medium.
With this new policy, government adverts will no longer reach their target audiences. Vuk’uzenzele may be a fine paper, but as a government medium it is bound to be patriotic (in the Zuma sense); it will report only the news that places the government in a good light and omit everything that is critical of the status quo. Media ownership can influence media bias, and in this case it certainly will because this is a paper specifically established to present government’s viewpoint. Government can’t force us to read anything voluntary, readers turn away from media that are overly biased and perceived to be vehicles for propaganda. In any event, withdrawing advertising resources from independent newspapers is a silly idea. It may hurt their bottom line, but it will not tame the South African media. This strategy can only be effective in a country with so weak an industrial and mercantile base that the media depends mostly on government advertising to survive – as is the case in Lesotho, for instance. Government claims that it is taking these drastic steps because the media is not objective. Let’s discard the lie – media objectivity does not exist. It is one of those concepts that are aspirational. It cannot exist. The very act of selecting material to publish obviates objectivity. Otherwise, all newspapers would lead with the same story from the same angle using the same terminology. In fact, the lexical choice itself speaks to the impossibility of objectivity. Words are valueladen: one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Reporters and editors bring their own contexts and biographies into each story, whether they like it or not – world views and values are socialised into them. But even more than the lack of objectivity from which all humans suffer due to the absence of neutral words that are value-free, the media’s ideological orientation will always be tied to competing political parties. In the US, for instance, some media will be liberal in the orientation of their editors and/or proprietors – for example, The New York Times, MSNBC and most free-to-air television networks. The US’s Democratic Party will find a sympathetic home in such media. The Republican Party finds comfort in those media that are of a conservative orientation – Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and New York Post. It is the nature of the beast. In South Africa, we have a gamut of ideological orientations – ranging from the extremely conservative and traditionalist to the libertarian, liberal, social democratic, socialist, communist and even Stalinist, and everything in between – that would be reflected in the media if it were truly diverse. Unfortunately, in South Africa there is no plurality of media ownership to allow competition.
A patriotic media in the Zuma sense tends to be a megaphone of the elite, which is the case in the US, where the mainstream media are very “patriotic”. Any semblance of democracy is really a debate among different perspectives of the elite.
Mainstream media in South Africa is different in that it does reflect the concerns of the marginalised, albeit from the perspective of the elite. It is therefore never truly the voice of the marginalised, unmediated by the viewpoint of the dominant classes. However, in its focus on the marginalised, it cannot be faulted for being primarily a megaphone of the elite. This is thanks to apartheid and the antiapartheid struggle where media cultivated the culture of speaking for the underdog, particularly with the emergence of what was called alternative media, many of which became mainstream media in the post-1994 South Africa.
The tradition of social justice advocacy pits the media against the ruling classes; the plight of marginalised communities is an embarrassment to the country and patriotic media would not expose it to the ridicule of the outside world.
Obviously, the enforcement of self-censorship has failed. The threat of economic sanction – withdrawing advertising revenue, for instance – is also doomed to failure. But government still has other weapons in its arsenal. One of them is the use of its popular support to exert pressure on editors by either boycotting their products or marching in mass demonstrations against specific newspapers and their editors – both of which, admittedly, are democratic tools when used sans violence to demonstrate the displeasure of a sector of the community that is offended, but not to coerce the editors to toe a party line.
An instance of this happened when City Press published The Spear, an intertextual painting by artist Brett Murray based on Viktor Ivanov’s poster of Lenin titled Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin will Live. The image of Lenin was substituted with that of President Zuma with his genitals exposed. Letting it all hang out
Many people, even those not sympathetic to the ruling party, were offended by the painting. But City Press editor in chief Ferial Haffajee insisted on publishing it because it was in the interests of free speech. When the ruling party failed to achieve selfcensorship from her, it organised a mass boycott of the newspaper. Hundreds of ANC supporters, mostly youths, marched in the streets to the gallery where the painting was on display to force the gallery owners to take it down and the editor to withdraw its publication online. Others resorted to burning piles of the newspapers on the pavements of Johannesburg and Durban. One of the president’s wives was photographed kicking her legs in a triumphal dance around the flames on a street in Durban. The pressure was so much that Haffajee had to capitulate and, against her better judgement, apologise to the president’s daughter and all those offended by the publication.
The right to vote is not enough in a democracy; you need accountability from the men and women you have elected to represent you. Since 1994, there has been an absence of democratic pressure in South Africa due to the weakness of parliamentary opposition in terms of voting strength. This lulled the ANC into believing in its own invincibility and omnipotence. Opposition so far has managed to enforce accountability via the courts. In the long run, this is not sustainable.
South Africa’s checks and balances need strengthening to have enforcement mechanisms when findings against government have been made by, for instance, the chapter 9 institutions or even the same courts of law. A force for accountability
But until case law has established proper precedents, litigation seems the only way to go. In the meantime, the media continues unabated to hold government accountable and thus curb the arrogance of power. Not all chapter 9 institutions are as effective as, say, the current Public Protector. Some have become rather unreliable because government is able to subvert them by deploying to their management compliant and pliant cadres. The only hope that is left for citizens is found in the media on the one hand and civil society organisations on the other.
My final assertion about patriotic media – again not the higher patriotism that Senator J William Fulbright defined – is that it is dangerous. The media in the US are a clear example of the danger, and are a model South Africa should never emulate. Mda is an author. This is the final article of a two-part series Mda wrote on whether
we need patriotic journalism
DROP YOUR SPEAR When Brett Murray’s satirical painting of President Zuma with his genitals exposed was published in City Press, it caused members of the ANC and its alliance partners to march in the streets in protest