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What is worrying about the attitudes towards the media in South Africa is the willingness by politicians to openly name the journalists they don't like, writes Ralph Mathekga.
Just when one thought societies had generally
accepted the role of a free press in strengthening democracy there has been
significant regression when it comes to recognition of the media's role in
Across the globe, the media is under siege as
some governments have taken a hostile posture towards a free press. When
powerful governments such as the current American administration openly treats
the media with contempt, the ripple effects are felt in the most remote corner
of the world.
Across powerful regimes in the world, "fake
news" has become the standard response to negative media coverage. Some
regimes will go as far as manufacturing fake news to counter and neutralise
legitimate adverse reporting. There are freelance operators who manufacture
fake news with the aim to target credible journalists and someone is paying the
bill for these divisive illicit operations.
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This brings the media under severe pressure as
it also allows those who have always been sceptical about the place of a free
press to now come out in the open and attack it.
The unfortunate part of this worrying global
phenomenon of misinformation is that South Africa is no exception to this. There
is a growing hostile attitude towards the media by some influential political
leaders in South Africa. The level of intolerance is worrying, and it has
become a political project to express that intolerance towards a free press.
Of course, situations such as the Sunday Times'
rogue unit reports do not help the situation. Quite often when one media house
makes a mistake in its reporting, the issue is then stretched to give the
impression that the entire media is compromised and cannot be trusted. This is
exactly how fake stories are created: the truth is stretched to create a
desired picture which is often a misrepresentation of the situation being
The media always has to assert itself in
carrying out the job of reporting on how power is exercised and exchanged among
the powerful. There is nothing strange about occasional tension between the
media and those who are entrusted to exercise power. The situation in South
Africa is strange in the sense that it is not only those who are in government
who often show resentment towards a free press, but also some elements in the
opposition who show a level of intolerance.
Opposition parties mostly stand to gain from a
free press as it helps them to point out the shortcomings of those who are in
power. Here in South Africa, opposition parties seem to be obsessed with power
to a point where they believe a free press would bother them once they are in
power. Within the dominant opposition parties in South Africa, there is also a
growing level of intolerance towards a free press.
To the opposition, a free press is
important only when the focus is on the governing party. For people who really
relish in calling media conferences to berate others, the opposition parties in
South Africa have to reflect on what type of relationship they want to build
with the media. The media cannot be seen as important only when those political
parties have juicy gossip about officials serving in government.
What is worrying about the attitudes towards
the media in South Africa is the willingness by politicians to openly name the
journalists they don't like. This tactic of trying to isolate journalists
simply because they are uncooperative is what we see also in Donald Trump's
White House; where some journalists are intimidated and threatened with
withdrawal of their accreditation.
If one organisation or department decides to
bar a media house from covering its events, the most appropriate thing is for other
journalists to boycott coverage of such an organisation. Failing to act in
solidarity is another problem for the media.
Indeed, the media should sharpen its reporting
and become more vigilant and robust in its coverage. The only thing that
eventually triumphs is the truth delivered with no agenda other than to unmask
the full extent of the story. The war between the media, the powerful and the
politicians will escalate further.
It is not by coincidence that Trump's openly
hostile attitude towards the media has created favourable conditions for Saudi
Arabia's government to stage a broad daylight murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The message that was sent from the chilling murder which was recorded is that
one can openly take up battle against a free press and face no consequences.
Here in South Africa we are getting to a point
where one can target the media without facing anger from society. It's doable,
and it's sadly underway.
- Ralph Mathekga is a senior researcher at the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) at the University of the Western Cape. He is author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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