The contentious relationship between South Africa’s private news media and its powerful ruling party, the African National Congress, seems almost certain to take a turn for the worse in weeks ahead, as a powerful party stalwarts proposed yet another media watchdog to rein in reporters and news organizations that are not “acting in the national interest.”
The ANC chapter for Gauteng Province – which includes both South Africa’s political capital of Pretoria and its economic capital of Johannesburg – has proposed creating another group, this one enshrined in the Constitution. It would operate independently of the ANC’s already proposed Media Appeals Tribunal, though it would mirror the first tribunal in its mandate to punish reporters who "undermine" the nation's Constitution."
Some ANC members say the second tribunal proposal may be either a sign of growing pressure from the party rank and file to get tough with the media, or a signal to the media industry to stop fighting and accept the first tribunal.
The proposal – which would violate the country's Constitution – comes just days before the ANC holds its midterm policy review, the National General Council, in Durban, ahead of national elections in 2012.
In its proposal, the Gauteng ANC chapter said that the nation’s privately owned media, “persistently undermines and violates the provisions of the Bill of Rights," and added, "It is therefore important that Parliament investigate and consider the establishment of a statutory body that will have the capacity to balance all of these rights."
While the Gauteng ANC’s proposal may be a trial balloon, it seems to enjoy significant support from powerful leaders within the ANC. Attending the Gauteng meeting were senior ANC leaders Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, and Performance Minister Collins Chabane. Indeed, at a time when the ANC seems riven by factional battles between its nationalist wing, led by Youth League leader Julius Malema, and its trade union allies, the Congress of South Africa Trades Unions, the one issue that seems to unite all factions is their mutual suspicion, if not contempt, for the news media.
“It will be most difficult to convince the ANC to abandon the Media Appeals Tribunal bill, because at a time when there is so much infighting, it is issues like the media tribunal that all factions can agree on,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a former ANC member who is now a senior political analyst with the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.
“In 1994, at the time of liberation, the ANC were the good guys, but what the media has been showing since then is that there is a gap between what the ANC promised in 1994 and what they delivered,” adds Mr. Matshiqi. That said, the news media themselves “are not angels,” and have appeared to take sides in internal ANC battles. The solution is not media tribunals, he says, but the power of ordinary citizens to “be more critical in how we consume news. When the news media say they are acting in the public interest, they must be careful. I need to be persuaded.”
With South African editors meeting senior ANC leaders in informal talks last week, there are clear signs that the ANC is ready to discuss possible solutions, including modifying the Protection of Information bill to address key constitutional matters, and working together on strengthening the media’s own self-regulations body, the Press Ombudsman’s office.
Yet the likely contentious meeting of the ANC in Durban could shift the debate away from such rational discourse, with various ANC factions trying to outdo one another in beating on a common enemy: the media.
President Zuma has his own troubled relationship with South African newspapers, due to a half-decade of stories looking into his personal history, from the arms-corruption scandal that got him fired as President Thabo Mbeki’s deputy in 2005 (charges were dropped in 2007), to the rape trial of 2006 (where Zuma was acquitted), to the ongoing media reports on Mr. Zuma’s growing family, with three wives, two fiancées, and 21 children.
In a letter to the ANC last month, Zuma wrote with some sympathy about the beleaguered Russian government and its critical private news media, and said rather pointedly that perhaps the greater threat to South Africa’s media was not from the ANC but from the country’s mainly white business interests.
“They talk about press freedom and perceived potential external threats to it from government, the ruling party, and not threats from commercial interest,” he wrote, adding, “the debate about 'who pays for the news' must also be opened."
Prodding Zuma toward a harder line against the media are a number of powerful factions, including the ANC’s Youth League leader Julius Malema – one of the most-quoted party leaders, due to his combative style – and Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who also serves as president of the influential South African Communist Party. Yet the ANC is also tugged in the opposite direction, toward more media freedom, by the Congress of South African Trades Unions, which has lately taken to exposing senior ANC leaders and ministers for their extravagant lifestyles, and inability to improve the livelihoods of South Africa’s working poor.
What remains to be seen is which faction wins out.
Matshiqi, the analyst, says the media should not be complacent. “I suspect if you put this to a referendum, the majority of South Africans would vote in favor of the media tribunal,” says Matshiqi. “This does not mean that the majority is right, but the media must not assume that the majority see them as serving their interests anymore.”