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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 7, No. 2, 6 February 2008

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Media and the battle of ideas: Intensify ideological and mass work to consolidate and deepen a radical national democratic revolution

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

The responses of the City Press editorial team as well as other media editors to the letter I wrote to Media 24 about the editorial orientation of the City Press, do not deal at all with the substantive issues I raised. Instead, these responses do exactly what they normally accuse political parties of doing - throwing labels ('apartheid type behaviour', 'intolerance of media freedom', 'rooi gevaar', etc).

What concerns me about this reaction is that media, in the name of its own freedom, is trying to blackmail those of us holding political positions not to state our own views about what we see as weaknesses and agendas pursued in the media. This is tantamount to saying freedom of expression is only for the media, that only the media can freely criticise those in political positions, while the latter have no such rights regarding the media. Otherwise, what is wrong in publicly and openly, in a democratic society, challenging the City Press and its owners about what we see as its provocatively factionalist role inside our organisations? It is interesting that the City Press has not responded to nor challenged the main contentions made in the open letter, about the fact that it has factionally positioned itself inside our organisations. It cries foul, without engaging the substantive issues.

Yet, a detailed study of the City Press editorials have displayed some of the worst factionalist and divisive journalism. Just to cite a few examples. Mathata Tsedu in the City Press of 9 July 2005, commenting about the ANC NGC said, amongst other things:

"And as a bored Mbeki sat at the NGC listening to the diatribe against him, his mind must have wandered to where he wished he could have been. Dealing with serious issues of upliftment and not listening to choruses of seemingly confused tribalists and single issue campaigners"

This is indeed a serious insult to the ANC delegates at that NGC, and reducing serious discussions and proceedings to a 'diatribe' by 'confused tribalists' against President Mbeki. How factionalist can you get beyond this highly offensive, judgmental attitude towards the delegates of the ANC. What this clearly says is that Zuma is supported by a bunch of confused tribalists! We have indeed compiled many of similar editorial interventions in order to demonstrate the validity of our open letter. But we will come back to these at an appropriate time in future.

However, this edition does not intend dealing with the specific matters relating to the City Press, but to identify some of the issues requiring further debate about the media in general, but much more importantly to identify some of the urgent tasks for the SACP (and the alliance) on this front.

The SACP would also like, in future, to have an open engagement and debate with the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), in the interests of freedom of expression, on whether it is for freedom of expression in general or whether it is only protecting the media's freedom of expression. Unfortunately, FXI, together with the media, seems to be saying everything else can be freely debated in South African society, except the media itself. And even where media is debated, interventions by political leaders, no matter how openly raised, are based on a hidden agenda to control and silence the media. The SACP has no such intentions, and we fear no robust engagement and debate on any matter.

I am made to understand that the Chris Hani Institute may soon be convening a debate on the role of the media pre, during and immediately after the ANC Polokwane Conference. This is to be welcomed and will hopefully lay a basis to open up a number of critical questions about the role of media in general in our democracy, and specifically the question of the relationship between political parties and the media in our nascent democracy.

I am of the view that there are a number of very critical issues that need to be debated in the context of the above. Firstly, we all need to openly debate the relationship between media freedom and freedom of expression in general. This essentially relates to the points raised above on whether the rights to media freedom are of a higher order than the general rights of freedom of expression for the rest of the citizenry including political leaders.

A second issue that we have to debate relates to the question of the impact of the nature of media ownership, especially private media, on its editorial content and style and coverage of news. In our country, mainstream media is highly monopolised and generally profit-driven. Coupled with this is the fact that we live in a country with very high levels of unemployment and poverty, with millions of our people not having access to newspapers. A question needs to be asked, including by the media itself, about what impact this has on freedom of expression in general and media freedom in particular. Is the debate about freedom of expression and media freedom a truly broad South African debate or is it a debate amongst elites? What impact does this have on access to information as part of strengthening our democratic society?

It is interesting and very instructive that the mainstream media, including the public broadcaster, failed dismally to predict the outcomes of Polokwane. In our address to the COSATU Special Congress last year, we raised the issue of the dangers of 'palace politics' played far away from the masses on the ground, with leaders trying to out-manoeuvre and outwit each other by smearing each other largely through the media. Perhaps the failure by media to predict Polokwane is a reflection of the fact that whilst it opportunistically thrived on this 'palace politics', it simultaneously became its victim, thus completely failing to read the ANC membership. For instance, in the run up to Polokwane, I made it a habit to deliberately listen to as many community radio stations as possible, and I generally found that, despite these suffering from a serious lack of resources, they were a thousand times more in touch with the mood of the ANC membership than mainstream media! Surely this says something about our mainstream media? This issue has recently been aptly captured in ANC Today by the President of the ANC Cde Jacob Zuma:

"Every day brings fresh instances of a media that, in general terms, is politically and ideologically out of synch with the society in which it exists.

"This phenomenon is most starkly illustrated at those moments in our political cycle when the people of South Africa get an opportunity to elect parties and individuals they want to represent them in government…

"The outcome of the 52nd national conference in Polokwane is a most recent example of the media yet again becoming a victim of its own propaganda and manipulation. Some are correctly asking themselves: 'how did we get it so wrong?', while others now use every opportunity to "prove" that there is something that was seriously wrong with ANC delegates at Polokwane."

The third issue for debate is that of the balance between media freedom and rights of individuals (including political leaders as citizens), as contained in the Bill of Rights, and the appropriate instruments needed to strike the correct balance between these, outside of the expensive litigation processes. It is, for instance, within this context that the proposal for the establishment of a 'media tribunal' arose at the ANC Policy Conference and 52nd National Conference. This matter has, to established media, become like a red rag before a bull! Media generally wants to dismiss this idea without even debating it. This attitude is principally aimed at shielding the very serious short-comings in media self-regulation from serious scrutiny and debate by the general public as well as by political parties. Again, this reflects the attitude that says the media can debate and criticise everything, and call for oversight processes for all other institutions, except itself! We hope that the Chris Hani Institute will sooner rather than later provide a platform for further debating the issue of a media tribunal.

A fourth very critical issue that requires debate is that of the relationship between owners and editors. We are often told that there is a 'Chinese wall' between the two, and this is highly questionable. Commercial media is there to make money, and this alone blurs this claimed distanced, and therefore it has never been heard of that one can bite the hand that feeds him or her. The most glaring example is the clearly cosy relationship between financial journalists and the institutions that they cover; something that requires closer scrutiny!

Our challenge to the mainstream media is that in a democracy, media freedom is not the sole responsibility of the media and the institutions created by it, but it is a matter of fundamental concern to all of society, including political parties. So it must not hide behind freedom of the media as a trick to try and shield itself from broader and ongoing critical public scrutiny.

The biggest mistake mainstream media can make is to try and restrict debate about its role only to within itself and the institutions it has created. Apart from the responses to my letter to Media 24, there are a number of other examples of this tendency, one being about commentary on the SABC. When we, as political parties, legitimately meet with the board or management of the SABC to complain about its clearly problematic news division, we are condemned by commercial media for wanting to control the public broadcaster. Yet, commercial media has turned criticism of the public broadcaster into its pastime. Does this mean that critique of the SABC is their exclusive domain, and that political parties are not entitled to raise their own critiques?

Our tasks: Intensify direct interface with our mass base

It is imperative that the SACP (and indeed our alliance as a whole) does not allow its internal debates and communication with broader society to be held hostage and mediated primarily by commercial media. Media freedom is an important foundation and cornerstone of our democracy which we fought for, and we must protect it, but we cannot mortgage our internal political debates and decisions to the mainstream media. This therefore requires that we intensify our media work on a number of fronts.

Firstly, it is important to understand media within the wider context of class and ideological struggles in society. Media itself is not immune from these struggles; in fact, in many ways it is an active player in these, often in the interests of the dominant capitalist interests. This requires that at all times we do need to robustly engage and debate with the media, which includes robust criticism of the media, unapologetically pointing out their own mistakes and agendas, as we have done with the City Press.

Secondly, it is absolutely important that we make full use of our own internal publications to directly reach out to our own members and to the public at large. A key challenge here is that we need some synergy amongst all alliance publications, without reducing the distinct role of each of these publications (eg. sharing and syndicating of articles, creating some co-operative methods of distribution, etc).

Thirdly, it is important to make full use of the opportunities provided by the internet to try and reach out to as many of our cadres in particular, and the public in general. Already we are making important advances on this front, and we need to deepen these, including exploring the use of the cellphone technology to quickly communicate and interact with our cadreship and mass base.

Fourthly, we need to urgently activate the implementation of the ANC resolution to drastically increase the funding of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), as part of the overall struggle to diversify media in our country, such that it is able to capture the millions of currently marginalised voices in broader society. The SACP played an active role in engaging with the process towards establishing the MDDA, but we have somehow not effectively interacted with the ongoing work of this important institution. The increased resourcing of the MDDA should not be seen as an isolated task, but must be firmly located in a broader struggle for the de-monopolisation and diversification of media.

The establishment of the Chris Hani Institute and the planned ANC Policy Institute/Foundation also provide important platforms for broader ideological work, including political education, research and public policy engagement from a working class and left perspective. It is important that we strengthen these institutions and ensure that they are in touch with the ordinary feelings and thinking of millions of South Africans, including our own cadreship.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, is to intensify our tried and tested 'media' and ideological weapon - daily face-to-face contact with millions of our people through our campaigns, taking up the daily issues that affect them. The Polokwane conference has (re-)opened an important bridgehead in this regard, by committing the ANC to be an actively mobilising organisation both during and outside election periods. It is this work that has consistently confounded our critics and detractors especially during, and on the outcomes of, our congresses.

We must do all the above, not in response or in reaction to mainstream media, but as the only sure way to mobilise the workers and the poor to advance and deepen a national democratic revolution through ideological work!