When truth comes second

2011-02-26 14:46

The Press Council’s public road show could have been a celebration of press freedom and an opportunity to educate South Africans about how the Press Ombudsman protects the rights of people in this country.

Instead the public hearings touring Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Durban to review the council’s code, complaints procedures and constitution kicked off in Johannesburg with only three citizens in the audience.

The next day there were only two.

In Port Elizabeth the ombudsman spent one morning waiting in an empty hall.

The day before, over tea, the ombud Joe Thloloe debated aloud with himself whether he should adopt a more proactive stance or whether he should resume the reactive role he has created for himself at the council.

Hopefully, the empty municipal hall in Port Elizabeth offered an eloquent answer.

Yes, civic organisations and academics did their duty and offered compelling suggestions about how the Press Council of South Africa could improve to become more effective.

But surely the idea behind increasing the council’s budget from R1 million to R2.8 million to accommodate public hearings was, in part, to meet and hear from the public?

The press sector in South Africa is under enormous pressure and can ill afford to sit like that proverbial toad in a pot of water that will eventually only bubble and boil.

The explosion of mobile and social networks have ravaged newspaper readership and affected advertising revenues, which have further been eroded by the recession.

The press has chosen two routes to respond to this crisis.

The road more travelled has seen some newspapers embrace sensation, celebrity and personality politics in a land grab for readership that has seen the poor and marginalised pushed even further outside the mainstream media’s boundaries.

Those newspapers increasingly serve advertisers and paying customers, and as a result the plight of poor children being taught in mud huts in some remote stretch of land in the Eastern Cape is of little consequence.

This is because the regional impoverished don’t sell newspapers as abundantly as Tony Yengeni’s love triangle.Those newspapers taking the road less travelled must be applauded.

They are the more mature media who want to play a strong civic role and contribute to the democratic cause of educating the electorate so that South Africa has smarter voters who can make better choices when it’s time to go to the ballots.

These media report on developmental issues, service delivery failures and the less “sexy” stories that aren’t headline-grabbing news.

These are the media that actively invest in investigative reporting even though this kind of journalism is expensive, takes time and requires huge effort to mature into attention-grabbing news.

These media are the fly in the ANC’s ointment because they continually expose one Gupta deal after another.

They establish the relationships between Zuma’s family and friends and the wheels of commerce that drive this country.

 They uncover tender fraud, nepotism and deals for cronies in a country where corruption has become a veritable tsunami.

They are the newspapers that tell the inconvenient truth, and are the very reason why the Press Ombudsman and his peers at the council are on the road to review the council’s systems.

The newspapers that shine a harsh, unrelenting spotlight on government shenanigans; the skimming off of public coffers for selfish gain; and the gross mismanagement that wastes millions are, in my view, precisely the reason why the ANC wants to clamp down on the media and regulate newspapers.

A press that realises its civic duty and reveals that police chief Bheki Cele was wrong in granting that controversial R500-million lease makes life a lot more difficult for a ruling party that doesn’t want to lose votes.

Those laws that seek to curtail press freedoms are an effort to silence investigative journalists doing a brilliant job of exposing bureaucrats consumed by self-interest and who forget they are only in power to serve.

What’s tragic about this past week’s tour by the Press Council is that the ANC appears to be right about its criticisms of the ombudsman and the council.

The ANC says that the Press Council’s system is slow, non-responsive and self-serving.

The ruling party has criticised the council’s lack of independence, teeth and its inability to do its job effectively.

Travelling with the Press Council as it tours the country to meet with civic organisations and members of the public confirms that the ANC may well be right.

The lack of public involvement is a failure on the part of the council while the representations by civic organisations and academics clearly reveal a council and ombudsman nowhere near as effective as they could be or should be.

For the sake of a future free press in this country, it is high time the industry did something about this.

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