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Government and media relationship in South Africa, what can be done?

Written by Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

The relationship between government and the media is one characterized by tension. It's like a foxtrot and tango, sometimes awkward, but one where the two must work together. This relationship in South Africa is on the decline, with the introduction of the Protection of State Information Bill otherwise known as the 'secrecy bill' and other policies which have resulted in the media's opinion that there is not enough press freedom in South Africa. According to the Reporters without Borders (RSF) - Index of Press freedom, South Africa ranks fifty two out of a hundred and seventy nine countries within the RSF 2013 index. On the other hand the government communications system has generated a lot of frustration for the media – where obfuscation and seeming refusal to be upfront with information is the order of the day.
Compared to other countries like Finland and Norway, which have no record of any censorship, intimidation or threats regarding the transference of information, South Africa lags far behind. In fact, in 2010 the ruling party called for a media appeals tribunal over and above the contested legislation known as the 'Secrecy bill'. Although the secrecy bill does not serve to regulate media, it does however pose the threat of political censorship – a situation that is not acceptable. South African legislation does not reflect a restricted media, making it easy to say there is the free flow of information within the country. However, it is worth considering that there are other alternative means of media control, which include harassment, threats, intimidation or even purchasing of the particular media companies that do not seem to align with government's ideological stances. Unfortunately, these matters are rarely 'signed off' to make it to provincial media, let alone national, as outlets continue to fight the battle of censorship.
More harrowing is the knowledge that state information is so highly protected that whistle blowers are even threatened anonymously. According to the Right2Know campaign, which was formed to contest the secrecy bill; whistle blowers are put under duress and sometimes even murdered. Since 2010, media houses and journalists have been under duress from the government. The Mail & Guardian has been constantly facing the threat of legal action when investigating government corruption such as the Oilgate and Nkandla Scandals. This shows that any action against the government is dangerous. The Sunday Times journalists also discovered that the government had tapped their phones illegally a few years ago, with the police tricking the judge into allowing this to happen. This is a clear breach of privacy. There are many more stories of the illegal arrests of journalists and protestors, which rarely ever make the news, if at all. It is clear that any institute, independent or otherwise, which does not articulate towards the beautification of the state, is under subversive attack.
The South African state uses bodies like the public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to spread its own propaganda. None can disagree with the reality that the public broadcaster seems to have an unwritten command, which is to showcase government in the best way possible. This in itself reflects a level of censorship, as there is no freedom to report on what is actually happening. The SABC makes the state look good, regurgitating biased and subjective news, thus rarely reporting on real government matters like corruption, misuse of government funds and resources, political and economic deals and more news worthy information. This is highly disconcerting as the SABC is the largest broadcaster in the country and is the most far reaching in terms of audience; its influence is immense, especially because these channels are free.
Community media is under even more duress. This is because most community media lack funding, so any kind of funding body is welcome. Governing bodies take advantage of this, and thus use these platforms to spread their own agenda and propaganda. The government or said municipality usually funds community media, with the unwritten rule that whatever is reported on must not reflect negatively, the dealings of the government or said municipality. Where does freedom of the press come in? It is without a doubt, a fading ideal for many journalists who are critical of the government.
As long as South Africa's governing bodies and leaders continue to engage in such weighty corruption such as the current Nkandla Scandal and the plundering of municipal resources recently counted to R30-billion in wasteful expenditure, it is impossible to think that the relationship between government and media will be easily resuscitated. This is because the terms of office of any media firm, is freedom to report the truth, be it government corruption or government accomplishment, freedom of the press is the direct mandate. This of course excludes media houses and broadcasters that are under the government's regulation. Consequently, it is necessary to at least begin to regulate or form more bodies for corruption watch, which will reign in the level of corruption at government level. Corruption comes in many forms which includes the hiring of officials without the right credentials, awarding of tenders to family members, misuse and maladministration of government funding.
Government communications has also not been up to standard according to many media practitioners with political principals not investing time to build good relationships with the media. The question of more and more junior spokespersons being appointed and not empowered has also dogged the industry over the last decade or so. All of these have been ventilated adequately between The South African National Editor's Forum (Sanef) and cabinet over the years but there seem to be little or no improvement.
So in summary what must be done to fix this relationship?
• Government at all levels must establish a coordinating forum between the government and the leadership of the media. This can replicate the relationship that Sanef has with Cabinet at the national level. This forum can be used to straighten out any misunderstandings that arise in the day to day relationships and also start a new culture of mutual cooperation.
• Both the media and government have to make an effort to understand how each works and appreciate the limitations that face each in their working space. Information exchange seminars can be set up in various provinces where there are presentations from each other about the state of the newsroom as well as the state of government communications. Visits to each other's workplace can also go a long way to clear up misunderstandings and foster appreciation of the work that both do.
• The media has to attend to issue of transformation of both the ownership and the newsroom for a long term sustainability of this relationship. The question of proper implementation of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has to be paid attention to. The media must also report on this as they do on other entities that are often put under pressure to transform.
• Government communications has to also get its act together in being more responsive to providing information to the media to be able to do their work. Media training for people who are tasked with the work of media liaison as well as training for political principals has to be prioritized.
I believe that if these four proposals, as a starting point, are implemented, there is some hope that this relationship can be turned around. It will, however, take serious effort from both sides of the divide for this come to pass.

• Tabane is Chief Executive of Oresego Communications and a PhD candidate in Media Studies at Wits University

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