By Blade Nzimande
Two significant, though seemingly unconnected, events occurred in South Africa that in other democracies would probably have led to serious introspection on the part of media or even commissions of enquiry into the media. The conviction of former Police Commissioner, Jackie Selebi, and the admission by former Argus journalist, Ashley Smith, that he was playing an active role – abusing his position as a journalist – in factionalist battles within our movement, are two deeply interconnected events in a number of ways.
Firstly, these two events highlight one of the most serious threats to our democracy – that of abusing positions of power, authority and public trust to promote narrow, selfish interests and political agendas inimical to our democracy. It might as well be that ‘mediapreneurs’ like Ashley Smith are probably the tip of the iceberg in our South African media.
The second connection between these two developments is media’s one-sided emphasis on the conviction of Jackie Selebi, without also reminding us, as the SACP public statement on this matter does, that “a stench smell hangs around the (Jackie Selebi) case relating to the past turf battles between the former Scorpions and the South African Police Services”. And that there are no angels in all of this, both on the side of the prosecutor and the guilty, as elements within the NPA (including some of its leading prosecutors), working with certain media personalities, were themselves not so long ago exposed in serious abuse of state organs to pursue political agendas.
The SACP statement also continues to say
“…we must now use this opportunity to also ensure that our recent history of abuse of state organs by elements in the criminal justice system to further their political and factional battles, as well as their own financial interests and greed, must be something of the past”.
It is therefore no wonder to us that the SACP statement was completely ignored by all sections of the media. We suspect this is because it highlights what we had always been concerned about, that sections of the media themselves have been active participants in various factional and dangerous political agendas.
The coverage by media of the Ashley Smith confession one-sidedly heaps criticism on the politicians involved (not that there should be no such focus), but the very serious transgressions by Smith are being underplayed. Instead the media is turning Smith into a victim of political machinations, seemingly taking the cue from the DA, without seeing Smith as an active colluder and beneficiary out of these political machinations. The fact that a senior journalist could engage in his dangerous shenanigans without the Argus newspaper being able to detect this, in the slant or nature of his coverage of ANC events, says a lot about what is wrong with South African media.
In addition, Anton Harber already heaps praises on the response by the Argus to Smith’s confessions by writing a prominent editorial distancing the publication from Smith’s actions. We must completely disagree with Harber as these are matters of no ordinary editorials, but they much more serious action than lengthy editorials, but go to the heart of the credibility of South African media. This is even more so because we do not know whether Smith has told the whole truth and/or what else is he not telling us?
It is for the above reasons that this development calls for a very serious reflection on the role played by South African media, as there is obviously more to the story. This comes after another journalist from the same group had admitted to writing and fabricating a document known as the ‘Special Browse Mole’, and was thereafter rewarded with a senior role by this group. This points to the fact that the problem of what is called ‘brown envelope’ journalism and this type of rot is a much more serious problem than the media is willing to admit.
The media industry itself has been reticent if not cowardly when such issues have been exposed in the recent past. For example when a senior editor was caught out shamefully publishing lies about the Deputy President’s private life, there was no sanction or condemnation from the media fraternity.
As a country at least we are owed by South African media a full account as to what comprehensive measures is it going to take to dig deeper into ‘mediapreneurship’ within its ranks. Ordinarily these, in any democracy, are matters of judicial enquiries.
It is for this reason that the question of ‘self-regulation’ by the media and the necessity for an independent ‘media tribunal’ is a matter that should be forcefully brought back onto the agenda as correctly argued by the Secretary General of the ANC, Cde Gwede Mantashe.
That this phenomenon may run even deeper than meets the eye is what has now become like permanent briefing sessions between faceless leaders within the ranks of our Alliance and some journalists about discussions taking place in our confidential meetings. These relationships are probably more than just ordinary media sources inside our organizations, but possibly involve arrangements not too dissimilar to those Smith says he was involved in.
A whole host of questions needs to be posed to, and by, the South African media in South Africa today? To what extent has the notion of media freedom been corrupted, if not co-opted, by the very highly monopolistic capitalist media oligarchies that dominate our private media in particular? What internal and serious internal news integrity processes have been, or need to be, put in place by media in our country as party of ‘quality and credibility assurance? To put it more bluntly, what measures does the South African media have to ensure that its journalists are not financially bought and corrupted to serve particular political or even financial interests? Of course one can expect that these questions will be dismissed on the grounds that to put such measures in place would interfere with media freedom and journalistic independence. Yet, failure to do so may mean that media freedom and journalistic independence may as well have become freedom to be bribed and independence for accepting dirty money by journalists!
We urge those in the media who are aware of corruption in their ranks to speak out. We must show a red card to corruption in the media just like in any other workplace or institution. The tendency of dismissing any criticism of the media as an attack on press freedom results in the media behaving like a protection racket and leaves no space for introspection.
The Ashley Smith confession is indeed a very, very serious matter that threatens to blow into pieces whatever credibility South African media still has and, much more seriously, may even roll back the many advances made in promoting media freedom in our country.
Nevertheless I can hear some of my comrades saying “It’s capitalist media bastard! What else do you expect of it!”
From “Red Alert” The electronic newsletter of the South African Communist Party (SACP) – Volume 9, No. 13, 7 July 2010