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Government and Media Relations in South Africa

Sunday Dare writes:

According to a keen observer of the modus operandi of the ANC-led government in South Africa, the "African National Congress (ANC) talks left and walks right". Perhaps no statement better captures the way the government continues to behave when it comes to its relationship with the media. Since the end of apartheid the media have often come under government scrutiny and have had to face up to government criticism that it is hostile and overly critical and insufficiently transformed from the way it was under apartheid. Under the current political leadership there has been no let up.

To better understand the underlining issues and emerging tensions between the first estate of the realm and the fourth estate, Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, University of Witwatersrand delved into the historical relationship between the two actors. Describing the South African media as "Vuvuzela media" in tribute to its vibrancy and robustness, Prof. Harber explained how the media continues to operate under a government bent on clamping down on it, albeit unsuccessfully.

Embedded in the culture and policy document of the ANC is the primary agenda of transformation in a post-Apartheid South Africa which includes the aim of reducing media impunity. This position is reflected in the fierce anti-media rhetoric from some elements within the ruling alliance that are ganging up against the liberal media. There are clear indications of the government's attempt to censor the media at a secondary level. Professor Harber pointed out two initiatives by the ANC government to clamp down on the media which are the Protection of Information Bill, which bears close resemblance to the secrecy bill under Apartheid, and secondly, the Media Appeals Tribunal which the ANC wants parliament to look into. According to Harber, what we see in South Africa is an attempt to restrict the media within the constitutional order by inserting ill-motivated laws.

The media for its part is not unaware of the government's motives and steps are being taken to counter it. Working with civil society, the media is taking on the government to ensure that freedom of expression is defended and that the media is not censored. The Press Council also helps with self-regulation and has handed down 60 per cent of its rulings against the Press. There is also an Ombudsman who deals with complaints.

Prof Harber says the media must resolve quickly such issues as lack of diversity, problems of quality and accuracy, the slide into tabloidism and the deterioration in public discourse.  The degeneration of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, SABC, into a quasi-government mouthpiece was criticised while the Daily Sun, a tabloid with a daily print run of 500,000, scored high marks for its people-oriented journalism.

In conclusion, as long as the government remains keen to transform the media according to its own dictates, the atmosphere of frostiness will continue to exist. Prof Harber submitted that emerging from this frosty relationship are some positives for the media: a hitherto dormant civil society has been mobilized to fight to protect rights guaranteed by the constitution and most importantly, the issue of media freedom is now the center point for testing the ANC's commitment to the very spirit and provisions of the South African constitution.