Press Freedom – No Room for the Politics of Censorship in Media Agency

by Sep 16, 2010All Articles

By Graeme Addison

Lumko Mtimde, CEO of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), must be feeling horribly isolated now that virtually all media professional bodies and a broad consensus of civil society organisations have condemned the proposed media tribunal — which he supports.

On the African National Congress (ANC) website recently, Mtimde mounted a defence of the media tribunal idea, questioning the ethics and accuracy of a journalism that promotes “commercial imperatives at the expense of media freedom”.

The MDDA was set up in 2002 as a statutory development agency involving a partnership between established media and the government. Its aim — a good one — is to assist in building an environment in which a diverse, vibrant and creative media flourishes and reflects the needs of all South Africans.

This translates into financial grants to struggling township and marginal media — both radio and newspapers — along with training and further support to help them stand on their own.

These media are the true inheritors of a tradition of activist and alternative journalism. It began before apartheid, grew to strength during the struggle era, and has since had to come to terms with the withdrawal of foreign funding and the harsh realities of survival in business. The MDDA stepped in to bridge the gap.

In the first five years of its existence, the MDDA supported 239 projects and awarded grants amounting to about R77m. The chairwoman of the MDDA, Gugu Msibi, has thanked the media for renewing their pledges for a second five-year term ending in 2014.

It is disturbing that the CEO of the MDDA should adopt the position that he has, even though he declares it is only his personal view. It is probably divisive within the MDDA as an organisation and certainly problematic for the editors, trainers, journalists, business and legal advisers in community media.

I have been a trainer for the agency and also completed for it a detailed research report on the business aspects of grassroots publishing. The proposal for a media tribunal, along with the simultaneous roll-out of the Protection of Information Bill currently before Parliament, would seriously damage the prospects for media development and diversity at the community level.

In Mtimde’s view, the principle of media freedom — enshrined in the constitution and international best practice — does not condone irresponsible reporting, gutter and sensational journalism, but fairness and factual reporting.

He says: “Nowhere in the proposal is there a threat to media freedom, a suggestion for a prepublication censorship or any other unconstitutional action.” The proposed tribunal would not be state-controlled and would not be a prepublication censorship mechanism. Mtimde bases his argument on the need to transform the press so that it is representative of society at every level. Newspapers at the moment — according to MDDA research — remain largely in the hands of minority interests, for which read whites.

The problem with all of this is that it confuses two goals of our social democracy: freedom of expression and principles of equity. This leads him to imagine that the state, acting as the agent of the masses of the people, can bring about media transformation by force of law and still sustain a free media system.

The equation is false. Whether under the auspices of the state or nominally independent, what we can expect is a tribunal with ruling-party appointees in the majority, free to damn the media at every turn and make judgments that stand as precedents.

We will learn what the media may or may not cover and what kinds of news sourcing by journalists is acceptable.

No doubt “authoritative” officialdom will be the touchstone of absolute truth and anything that diverges from it will be suspect. A body of precedents becomes the common law of the land. Just as in apartheid days, media — that is, reporters on the ground and editors in their offices — will censor themselves.

When proponents of the tribunal claim that they support free expression and that the tribunal would not impose censorship, they are talking nonsense.

Blue-pencil censorship by government officials sitting in editorial offices is not necessary when you can get journalists to do the job for you.

Self-censorship has the great benefit, for governments, of seeming invisible except where dastardly newspapers buck the system by printing blank or blacked-out spaces, as happened at times under the white nationalists. This practice could of course be outlawed too, to maintain the appearance of good and clean and fresh news coverage.

The tribunal would be bad enough but imagine the glee with which the Protection of Information Bill — the so-called secrecy act — would be greeted up and down the land by local councillors and municipal officials. Now, at last, they could hide any embarrassing facts about mismanagement, misappropriation or missing whatever, simply by declaring it a state secret.

The bill specifically says corruption will not be protected. The difficulty for journalists will be to prove that something hidden is in fact corrupt — and how do you do that if you cannot access the information?

But never mind the exposure of crime and corruption in high and low places, the prerogative of secrecy is a formula for bad governance and crumbling administration.

The greatest losers will be communities on the ground. Those who have taken to the streets in service delivery protests will be the victims as a blanket of secrecy stretches over local administration. Mayors and their acolytes can get away with anything if the law lets them hide their misdeeds and punishes those who ferret out the facts.

Already the party cadres who occupy, and trade on, lucrative posts in return for political loyalty are almost beyond being held accountable because the ANC needs them. The resulting frustration turns the local citizenry into mobs, who set about burning tyres and hurling rocks as police try to restore order.

Let us rather have a press state than a police state. In a country where unfettered reporting allows issues to be raised, human reason fights the tendency to resort to violence as the only solution to civic problems. At root, censorship is a denial of reason, with a consequent reliance on coercion.

The MDDA was always an ANC project and it is not surprising that its CEO — a member of both the ANC and the South African Communist Party — should have taken the position that he has. But Mtimde’s personal view should not become an institutional bias at the MDDA in favour of what amounts to censorship.

At the very least, the board of the MDDA should distance itself from the party-political position taken by its CEO.

More, the board could and should publicly oppose both the media tribunal and the secrecy law on the grounds that both could suppress local investigative journalism and deprive communities of independent inquiry and critical expression.

SA’s commercial and public media are financially backing the MDDA as a necessary vehicle for the development of a diverse media system. The agency will be shooting itself in the foot if it does not repudiate the view of its CEO and go on record squarely defending freedom of expression from all state encroachment.

Addison is a journalist and former professor of communication.


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