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

CityPress - - Voices - Zakes Mda voices@ city­press. co. za

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

PHOTO: LEON SADIKI

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

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