OPINION – IT IS time for South Africa to admit the Fourth Estate no longer exists, and to also concede one of the most important pillars for the sustenance of democracy and public education leaves society exposed to misrule and other forms of abuse.
The persistent revelations about journalists involvement in political games and corruption indicate that power and those who are supposed to speak truth to power are inseparable. At worst, the media’s reputation is severely damage and it will take some doing to fix its image.
Today, the media struggles to uncover the truth behind its reporting of events. It also dismally fails to undergo a justifiable and morally ethical way to “fix any leaks” in the supply of information.
Instead, the media lies, spins, obfuscates and brazenly ignores its fluffy ethical standards.
The media is trapped in the bigger struggles between those who want to control the state and resources means South Africa lacks a critical voice in society.
Instead the media widens the cliff between those who want to defend the status quo and the rest of the population that exists in the periphery.
Journalists are adept in smear campaigns and slander using their pens and microphones.
In the last few years, journos have made it their business to publish books to spread propaganda but also turn a blind eye to everything else that is happening around them.
Both political and capital powers have ensured the annexation of freedom of speech by using money and other favours to win over journalists.
For example, Ranjeni Munusamy reportedly “received money to settle the balance she owed on a car from a slush fund”.
The legal papers submitted to the Zondo Commission expose an arrangement between spooks and CNBC Africa as well as the implication of Karima Brown in dirty work of surveillance.
It is clear that journalists are as fallible as the people whom they accuse of being corrupt when it comes to money.
Evidence before the Zondo Commission shows how the media is enmeshed in political power plays involving millions of rands.
The publications like the Sunday Independent were apparently involved in the ANC succession battle in 2017. The story does not end there.
The eNCA also expressly showed its candidate. But chief commanders of the polemical journalism selectively single out the African News Agency as culprits and disregard corruption by some of the prominent writers of fictional sleuth stories.
◻ The media and the ‘battle for the soul’ of the ANC
The media is in an unenviable position where it absorbed in the ongoing feuds that primarily involve South Africa’s dominant political party, the ANC.
The “battle for the soul” of the ANC involves anyone from its members and non-members to capital and media. It is more than just a political war but it extends to the economy and influence over society.
In Factional Politics: How Dominant Parties Implode or Stabilise (2012), Françoise Boucek lists South Africa alongside Japan, Canada, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Australia as countries that keep re-electing one political party. Although there is no theory to articulate this phenomenon, evidence suggests that factionalism within the dominant party always manifests due to asymmetric competition which can be useful “to predict with relative certainty their decline and breakdown”.
The role of the media is to heighten negative perceptions as it is remains steadfast in portraying intraparty disputes as “zero sum games between winners and losers”. Thus, journalists in South Africa have stopped being spectators in political to active participants. The media is no longer a platform used by politicians to communicate with their constituencies – it is a potent weapon to destroy opponents and dissenting voices. This implies that the skills learned from the Nats sustain senior journalists and their protégés persist and shape the character of South African media.
Undeniably, the intraparty feud in the ANC is too visible to ignore and all society is in the pigsty.
More worrisome is the involvement of journalists and media in the collapse of a society that cannot claim to have turned the corner after gruesome apartheid and colonial oppression of the African majority. A new society has not developed after 1994.
Resources and economy are still very much in the hands of the minority, and the rest of the population languishes at the bottom without anything to show from their supposedly hard-fought freedom. The media is unable to expose the reasons why South Africa is moving at a snail pace in delivering the better life for all citizens. It has opted to join ANC factions for political expediency and other reasons.
Boucek says that factions provide “a structure for intraparty competition”. The truth, however, is that the factions are a microcosm of what is happening in the underdeveloped South African society after the end of apartheid.
The ANC is the battleground for all groups in their eagerness to capture the national identity and form of the South African society.
The involvement of senior journalists, who are more powerful than junior public representatives of different political parties, in political fights is big concern.
They know that they always have an upper hand and power to tilt scales. They shape toxic national discourses and narratives that are forced into public spaces, and anyone who refuses to follow this herd of contempt is treated with utmost disdain, ridicule or worse.
People like Pieter-Louis Myburgh, Adrian Basson, Jacques Pauw, S’thembiso Msomi, et.al come to mind when it comes to press junkets and tawdry novels about discrediting politicians they dislike.
Also, the Daily Maverick, eNCA, Sunday Times, City Press, M&G and similar thinking dark-holes are probably the worst offenders in flushing those unlikable to them down the pit toilet.
They care less about their irresponsible conduct and do not even feign impartiality in their blatant witch-hunt. They are no different from the American media which has a distasteful reputation of being openly corrupt and insulting. The media believes in manufactured consent to force down silly agendas down the people’s throats. Besides journalists, the media features intellectuals with questionable credentials to push its propaganda.
The only reason why the ANC has not split to date is because it is a useful platform for unending rivalry in the South African society.
But once this brutal battle ends the party is likely to disintegrate into pieces. Some even predict that, depending on who wins, the future of South Africa as a single entity could also disappear into thin air.
So, the deep media involvement in the ANC is understandable for what is at stake but that does not make the present situation acceptable at all. The effects of having a compromised media might not be visible today but they are going to be felt in the future after all the dust has settled, if ever it will.
◻ Effect of corrupt media on freedom of expression
The collapse of the Fourth Estate has serious implications for freedom of expression, which is one of the most important weapons that ordinary citizens have against all those with almost infinite power in society from the state to corporations. Freedom of expression allows not just the media but citizens as well to air their views in all matters pertaining to society without fear of censorship. This censorship can include the limiting freedom of the press wherein the media is supposed to be independent and free from control by external forces, in theory at least.
In theory, the media is expected to self-regulate to ensure impartiality and unbiasedness in its reporting. The normal occurrence is that entities like Amnesty International would always juxtapose state power and media power to determine media freedom in countries across the globe. Government is usually at fault for limiting media freedoms and other freedoms including journalists being allowed space to speak truth to power.
South Africa, however, has an unusual situation where the media flexes muscles more than the state to limit the freedoms of other media and individuals that are seen not to be toeing the line in the factional wars that characterise the dominant groups within the ANC and, by extension, the state and all society. Journalists are entangled in a deep hole of politics.
The media is a potent war for fighting political wars and is no longer the voice of the voiceless. Journalists are tools that are used to undermine freedom of expression and free speech.
The journalism fraternity is divided in the middle because its original mandate is long forgotten in the quest to be relevant in political wrangling over the control of the state and the economy. As the old adage goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Journalists write stories that protect the interests of the master and care less about advancing the interests of the public.
What the media does not realise is that “umbeki wenkosi akabusi nayo”, meaning those who have played a part in installing a king generally do not rule with him. The long-term implication of what is currently happening in South Africa is that the media and journalists will regret when the wheel turns someday. Those who ordinarily hold power and resources would expect journalists to play along even when they do not agree. It will be too late, and if it is not late already.
Journalists continuously fail to service society with quality investigations and education since they are preoccupied with political power struggles that have little or nothing to do with them. In the near future, the power games would change for the worst and the king will turn against them. They will be the first ones to demand justice and rights – these are things they handed over to dominant classes without any use of force and coercion.
◻ Angels with horns and devils with halos
South Africa’s democracy therefore hangs in the balance. Wrongdoers are painted in different colours in order to separate friends and foes. The media has fallen in trap where it decides between “angels with horns and devils with halos”, in the words of political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi.
Such things as corruption, maladministration and perjury should be approached from the same lens. But the lens of the South African media is fractured as it is projects clearer images of enemies in a bad light, and friends as angels for exactly the same misdemeanours.
As a result, censorship of individuals happens without draconian laws or state force but through the media and its crooked journalists who are hellbent in silencing anyone and everyone who questions their blue-eyed boys and angels for any wrongdoing.
The media pursues anyone who has been declared persona non-grata in certain circles and is uncompromising. Media freedom is hijacked to deal with political opponents. South Africa is headed towards a deadly hurricane and media will not be able to say what happened.
Media influence on key security and legal institutions is also very normalised. The behaviour of law enforcement agencies is properly synchronised with media preferences. Anyone whom the media wants to protect is assured of a free passage – that person will neither be arrested nor prosecuted for allegations against him or her.
The story of angels with horns and devils with halos continues uninterrupted and is worrisome.
This means South Africa has not followed what happened in other countries where both media and the judicial system were weaponised to fight political battles. Lada Trifonova Price argues that “from a normative standpoint the media are usually seen as one of the pillars of a national integrity system…” Thus, ethics and moral high ground have been exchanged for directorships and financial gains by journalists.
As a result of its problematic existence, the media lacks trustworthiness and is hardly capable of exposing abuses of power or authority. Commissioned by the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), the recently published report titled “Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility” (2021) is a smokescreen and also an attempt to conceal media corruption. South African media is irreversibly corrupt and there is nothing that will make it credible in the eyes of the public.
The inquiry is about lies and deceit since it avoids contentious issues such as deliberate false reporting and bias. It also shows that the media is allergic to the truth that it claims to stand for and pursue. The media hates to publish stories about its rogue behaviour and its role in fuelling factionalism, racism, inequality and poverty in the South Africa by failing to speak the truth to power. It is unsurprising that the panel did not speak to “bad” men of South African media, Piet Rampedi and Steve Motale.
The look-good report by SANEF and its chair Mahlatse Mahlase has not begun to deal with the rot in the media. The next step is to commission yet another inquiry to investigate dicephalic snakes in SANEF ranks, otherwise the pledges following the so-called independent report merely spread the stench in the room.
Siya yi banga le economy!
* Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters.