We need to guard against mediapreneurship

2010-07-24 12:10

The media’s shifty reaction to the SA Communist Party’s (SACP) online newsletter Red Alert – making the case for proper oversight over the fourth estate – was ­hardly surprising.

We were ­raising serious concerns about what appears to be a growing trend of “mediapreneurship” – journalists who are literally in the pockets of ­moneyed and ­powerful interests, accepting cash to write stories in ­favour of financial patrons and ­besmirching the opponents of their ­benefactors.

The SACP further condemned the behaviour of mediapreneurs like Ashley Smith, formerly of Independent News & Media, on his admission that he was ­politically and financially ­corrupted to ­report in a ­particular manner.In this statement, the SACP, among other things, said:

  • It wishes to reiterate its full support to the call by the ANC for the establishment of an ­independent media tribunal as part of strengthening the twin imperatives of media freedom and public accountability; and
  • It has been our view over the last few years that while media freedom is one of the cornerstones of our democracy – and must be protected and defended – media self-regulation is ­hopelessly inadequate.
Over the years, the SACP has argued that given the influential role of the media, it is important that an independent body be ­established to preside over and hear complaints about the media.

A serious flaw of the press ombud system is that if a person lodges a complaint with it, that person must waive his/her rights to ­pursue the matter in court.I have serious doubts about the constitutionality of such a ­requirement. A non-statutory and private body can never have the power to remove the constitutional rights of any individual to seek legal recourse.

Whenever the issue of an ­independent media tribunal is raised, the media and its liberal apologists normally argue that those who do not want to use the route of the press ombuds must approach the courts.

The fact is that approaching the courts for redress is an ­extremely expensive and lengthy process that is beyond the means of the overwhelming majority of South Africans.

In any case, when President Jacob Zuma sought redress through the courts for what he perceived to be defamatory ­reportage, the media fraternity was up in arms – exposing its ­hypocrisy and intolerance of any form of scrutiny or oversight.

My view about an independent media tribunal is that it must not be a body that seeks to influence or even prohibit what the media reports.

To describe it as such is blackmail by capitalist media.

Instead, a media tribunal should provide a cheaper and more ­efficient means of processing complaints about media transgressions and it should be ­legally empowered to imposeappropriate ­sanctions against transgressors.

The standard “penalty” of the press ombuds against media transgressions is an undetectable apology in a far less prominent space than the ­original, often damaging, article. This is simply inadequate and grossly unfair.

As much as media freedom must be protected, it must be ­balanced with the ­equally important rights of individuals to ­protect their integrity.

The SACP has also argued that the media is just about the only institution in our country that plays such an important public role and yet is not subjected to any form of checks and balances as contained in the Bill of Rights. Why is the media so vociferous about the need for independent watchdogs over all of society but strenuously objects to itself ­being subjected to the same ­principle, instead preferring to monitor itself without any ­independent watchdog?

It does this because it wants to be a law unto itself, irrespective of the damage it inflicts on ­people’s integrity.

Our Constitution is also based on two very sound principles. Firstly, as much as it is based on the promotion of basic human rights – including media freedom – these rights do have ­limitations.

Secondly, rights should always be balanced with responsibilities.

To this end, a whole range of independent institutions and oversight bodies have been put in place. Yet the media does not want to be subjected to any of these. Why?

We think that we have now reached a stage in our ­democracy where this anomaly needs correction.

A media ­tribunal is necessary to ­strengthen democracy and ­public accountability.

It is for this reason that our ­society needs thorough and open debates, and should not ­allow the media to browbeat us into submission on this issue.

We are entitled to rights and ­recourse which are not inferior to press freedom. Let us engage on how to strike the right balance.

Nzimande is general-­secretary of the SACP

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