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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

We Object: Are the media too free?

Carly Brown - 2010-09-21

I am a South African citizen currently living in the UK and I am concerned about both the proposed Media Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill. Why would I care if I live in the UK? I plan to move back to South Africa next year, so these changes to media freedom will affect me directly.

I may be concerned, but I am not sure where I stand with regard to the proposed changes.

My initial reaction to the Bill and the Tribunal was distrust. I distrust the ANC’s motives for these changes to media freedom. The reason I distrust their motives is because of statements made by ANC members – statements such as these:

Jackson Mthembu:1 "Let's start with the messenger. If the messenger is part of a DA [Democratic Alliance] onslaught on ministers, the messenger must be subject to sanctions."

Floyd Shivambu:2 “The Media Tribunal should then begin with investigating Newspapers such as the City Press, Mail & Guardian, The Citizen, Sunday Times, The Times, most Afrikaans Newspapers (Die Burger & Rapport) and all Independent Group Newspapers to expose their ill-intentions and programme to sow divisions in the ANC and undermine its integrity. Some of the owners and directors of these Newspapers are active funders and leaders of opposition parties and this explains why the ANC and all its structures are under constant attack.”

It is clear from these words that the ANC are not trying to protect members of the public from an over-zealous media. They are out to protect themselves. This is a personal feud between the ANC and the media, and by an interesting leap of fallacious reasoning, the opposition.

Which is a pity, because media freedom as it stands does need looking at, and even changing.

I currently live in a so called “Western” country that prides itself on media freedom, that shudders at the thought of media restrictions. Look at communism; look at fascism; look at South Africa during apartheid, where media restrictions were used to influence and harm people, and to hide the truth of that harm from other people.

While I would not want to live under a regime of media censorship, I do not think we have to choose one of the extremes. Here in the UK the media are free to insult, exaggerate and make up more or less what they want.

I once read a front page headline in one of the less reputable newspapers here that proclaimed: “Maddie’s body burned”, referring to the Madeleine McCann abduction. I read the article, which spoke about a suspicious Portuguese pet incinerator, and that it was possible that Madeleine had been burned. Yes, it is also possible that she is on Mars, but the headline proclaimed fact, not speculation. I call this lying, or at least misrepresentation.

Journalists claim that to be shown respect by the media, you must first earn that respect. I fully agree with this statement. But surely to be shown disrespect by the media, you should first earn that disrespect.

Reporting on what celebs wear to the shops; showing us their zits, their cellulite – to me this is disrespectful of their privacy.

There is a celebrity in the UK, Leona Lewis, a reality show-winner. She is a shy, clean-living girl. She is a talented singer who has broken into the US and that is pretty much all you can report about her. But because she is famous and the media need to use her popularity to sell their pages, they write spiteful little stories about how dull, insipid, and inane she and her love life are. Again, I say disrespect should be earned.

I admire the “freedom” of the Western press when it is able to report or even uncover things like corruption and suspicious deaths. As has been pointed out, if someone like Steve Biko ever dies under police custody again, I want to know about it. But I do think that there is room for stricter regulation of the media in terms of respecting privacy.

Another thing that worries me about criticism of the proposed media restrictions is that there is a culture clash inherent in who supports these restrictions and who opposes them. As with everything in South Africa, it boils down to black and white.

This is reductive, of course, but those who oppose the media restrictions tend to idealise the “Western” standard of media freedom. And in light of the proposed Bill, which does not specify which information the government can deem classified, and how they can come to that decision, there is reason to be worried. The South African press has been muted before and they don’t want to be muted again. I agree with this. But freedom comes at a price, and this price, this unregulated disrespect shown by the media, is difficult for some to stomach.

Those who support the Bill, and it appears that the majority of the country may fall in this category, tend to come from a so-called “African” culture, in which respect of elders and figureheads is sacrosanct. They argue that the media are disrespectful to the privacy of public figures, and that the current Press Ombudsman is ineffective at regulating transgressions. I cannot argue with this either.

For me, the biggest problem in South Africa is the cultural divide. People do not seem to be willing to take others’ cultural ways of thinking seriously. We need to acknowledge that both sides have very real, very valid concerns. Too many times I have read kneejerk online comments along the lines of “The Western/white way is right” and “The African/black way leads to a failed state.”

There does not have to be an either/or dichotomy. The Western ideal for media freedom as it functions now is in no way perfect. It can be improved. Those with “Western” leanings need to realise that they are in the minority in South Africa, and that compromise is the only way to progress in a way favourable to both parties. The ANC is right: the level of disrespect shown for the truth and for personal privacy is unacceptable as things stand.

In an ideal world the two extremes would come together to lead the way for a new improved standard of media freedom, perhaps along the lines of how our Constitution was written. But until people learn to take one another’s cultural concerns seriously, South Africa will continue to function as two countries within one border.

On a literary note: I have just finished reading The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. One of the main themes of this historical novel is the influence of the media over events in the period from Trotsky’s assassination to McCarthyism in America. Throughout the book she highlights true instances in which the media were able to shape, and in some cases directly influence, the course of history, through selective, state-controlled, or just plain untrue reportage. Read it and tell me what you think about media freedom afterwards.

As I say, I don’t know where I stand on media restrictions in South Africa. But if I were forced to choose between the two current extremes, I would choose media. In light of the statements from the ANC that I quoted earlier, the government is not acting with the interests of the people at heart. If I have to choose, I choose to know too much rather than too little, or what the government wants me to know. I want an alternative to the ANC-approved news.

We will have to let lawsuits guide the way when the media overstep the mark.
I just hope I never become famous.

Carly Brown


1 ‘Big stick to beat 'errant' journalists’. Mandy Roussow . Mail and Guardian Online. Johannesburg, South Africa - Jul 23 2010.

2 ‘ANC Youth League is fully in support of the media tribunal and rejects claims of the Press Council of South Africa’. Floyd Shivambu. Press statement. 4 August 2010


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