There was jubilation for top ANC communicators Lindiwe Zulu and Jackson Mthembu when they reported the unanimous calls for speedy movement on a media appeals tribunal – they reported hot out of the governing party’s national general council last week.
Zulu is minister of small business, while Mthembu is an MP.
Parliament must initiate a process to investigate the feasibility and desirability of a media appeals tribunal, the party decided. It resuscitated a motion taken in 2007.
Such a tribunal would report to Parliament and result in state control of media content through a regulatory body. In the pantheon of regulation, it is tantamount to censorship.
“Comrades were saying: ‘Why did you retreat from implementing the media appeals tribunal?’ In fact, they were saying that already there is a desirability for the tribunal,” said Mthembu, who is the new ANC communication subcommittee tsar.
Zulu told me that delegates had even demanded time frames for implementation of this resolution – so determined are they.
It has been clear for months leading to the confab that there was agitation for drastic movements against the media. For months, many ANC and government communicators had tried to create a debate called “the crisis in the media”.
We have problems, I know. But the “crisis in the media” debate that they were itching for was one that would amount to journalists and editors extending hand-wringing apologies to politicians for having been nasty to them.
Because one editor had claimed that he had been part of a conspiracy against President Jacob Zuma for years and was now deciding to stop his scandalous shenanigans, every other journalist is expected to raise their hand and, like a school child, plead for mercy from their schoolmaster, and also confess their part in this conspiracy.
No self-respecting individual is going to buy that – unless, of course, they partook in this conspiracy.
There are certainly issues of concern. I am worried about the lack of diversity in ownership. Many black journalists still complain of marginalisation in newsrooms, despite the majority of editors of major publications being black.
And circulation continues to decline for all print publications as readers migrate to reading on their phones or other digital platforms. International experience shows that advertising revenue lost in print cannot be recovered from online. This has affected media houses in a big way and led to reflections on the future of journalism.
These concerns and the more universal worries about encouraging our children to read are what have been causing sleepless nights.
All these points do not mean that we don’t reflect on the content and quality of our products. We do.
The tribunal process is on and we must take it as it comes. It is a fundamentally flawed idea, though.
Over the weekend, Zulu – who is the former chair of the ANC’s communications subcommittee – said that they opted for the tribunal, again, because the ANC was being negatively portrayed in the media.
“The feeling is that ... the ANC as a liberation movement and as a ruling party is being relegated either to the back pages or, if anything, a lot of what is reported is something which is only on the side of the negative.”
So the delegates actually believed that the magic wand to turn the negative into the positive is this tribunal?
And the media will have to be subjected to state control of media because the governing party is upset at their coverage?
We should be talking instead about fairness, balance and access to redress for the most marginalised and underresourced sections of society when aggrieved by coverage.
We can’t have an intelligent conversation that starts with one party saying: “You portray me negatively, so I will seek to control you.”
Mthembu argued that the media had failed to deliver on its undertakings. “We gave them space to get their act together, but what did they do? Nothing.”
He was referring to the self-regulation of media, which the ANC has consistently raised as a problem.
But steps have been taken to improve the system, which is now one of co-independent regulation – the SA Press Council is mostly composed of members of the public. It is headed by a retired judge. The panel that appoints the members of the public is also headed by a retired judge. The appeals panel, which has the power to overrule the ombudsman, is also headed by a retired judge. The penalties are harsher.
As the SA National Editors’ Forum has pointed out, there is no need for a tribunal because the current regulatory framework, introduced after the debate on the tribunal started, is working well.
But this is not the time to cry wolf. Let’s engage in a rational process of debate that will, hopefully, result in jubilation for all of us.