SA media's Stockholm Syndrome

2012-01-06 00:00

Our press is promoting the ANC even as the party is trying to curtail its media freedomfreedomgavin davis

SOMEBODY once cautioned against picking a fight with a person who buys ink by the barrel. The African National Congress either didn’t get the memo or simply ignored the warning. Because the party hasn’t so much picked a fight with the media as declared nuclear war on them. We are witnessing an assault on the free press not seen since the days of John Vorster.

You would think that the international outcry precipitated by the Protection of State Information Bill (Secrecy Bill) would prompt the ANC at least to tone down its rhetoric, if not the substance of its legislative proposals. And yet just a few days after the passage of the Secrecy Bill through the National Assembly, Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe accused the print media of being “the main opposition party” because coverage of the ANC was deemed overly negative.

These are not the unchecked ramblings of a party hatchet person. They are well-aimed jabs at the media’s soft underbelly. And that is the irrational fear some journalists have of being labelled anti-ANC and, by extension, counter-revolutionary or reactionary.

The result is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome by which media practitioners paradoxically defend the ANC even as the party destroys their freedom. It explains why the media are gearing up for a year-long ANC love fest, despite the party’s ongoing assault on the free press.

Last month, the Democratic Alliance (DA) received a letter from the Independent Newspaper Group inviting it to advertise in a forthcoming feature on the ANC centenary celebrations. The letter sang the ANC’s praises, even promising to “inform our readers of all that the ANC stands for and not only from a political perspective but as a principled way of life”.

This glowing endorsement of the ANC, written on an Independent Newspapers letterhead alongside the ANC logo, was accompanied by an endorsement letter for the feature authored by ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete.

In response, the Independent Newspaper Group editorial director, Moegsien Williams, denied there was anything unethical going on. “As a rule, there is a ‘Chinese’ wall between the commercial and editorial units of our company primarily to protect our editorial integrity,” he said.

It is too early to tell whether the advertising campaign will influence reporting in the group’s newspapers. And it remains to be seen exactly how the feature will look and whether it will be clearly marked “advertorial”. What is apparent is that the newspaper group has engaged in a practice that could lead audiences to doubt its independence.

Perhaps even more troubling was the City Press’s campaign published in the newspaper and online to find South Africa’s most ardent fan of the ANC. It reads like this, in ANC colours: “Are you the biggest ANC supporter in the country? We’d like to hear from you. Tell us in an SMS or e-mail why you love the party or send a picture that shows your support. Great stories and pics will be published. SMSes charged at R1,50 …”

If the call had been made for readers to send in their honest views of the ANC — good or bad — there would be little cause for complaint. The problem is that the City Press made no attempt to elicit any views on the ANC besides the overwhelmingly positive. It is doubtful that any feature published based on these vox pops alone could be anything approaching balanced.

When the DA raised questions about this, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee went on the defensive: “Can the DA really dictate how the media covers the ANC centenary? I’ve had a threat for our call to find the biggest ANC supporter,” she tweeted. “Any media study will find the DA gets way more than its proportionate share of coverage,” she tweeted later.

But this misses the point. It is not the DA’s intention to dictate how the media covers the centenary. And we are not particularly concerned with how much overall coverage the ANC gets in relation to the DA either. If the DA punches above its weight media-wise, it is because the party works hard at getting its message across. All the DA is asking for is fair and balanced reporting on the ANC centenary celebrations, recognising both the achievements and shortcomings of the party.

If newspapers want to advance press freedom, they must avoid falling into the Mantashe trap. Now is not the time for the Stockholm Syndrome.

• Gavin Davis is the communications director for the Democratic Alliance

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