I usually tell people who moan about the perceived media bias against the government that in fact many politicians and public representatives would have long been out of power if the media was even half as effective as they imagined.
It is a fact that the number of government corruption stories that end up on the from pages of newspapers make only a small fraction of the tip-offs that journalists get from whistleblowers in municipalities, provinces, central government and state owned entities.
The majority of the stories never get to see the light of day because some public representatives apply stonewall tactics to evade questions.
Those with information sometimes refuse to provide it, especially when it incriminates them. Thus most stories end up stillborn because there is not enough evidence to take them forward.
So it is true that in South Africa journalists are allowed to ask questions and that should be applauded. But it is not always true that the questions get answered.
A recent trip to Germany showed that there might be a way to get around deliberate lack of accountability in government.
The German media appear to have a better, working solution that we may want to consider. It is mandatory that the German government holds three media briefings every week, where the spokespersons of each department are questioned by journalists.
The arrangement ensures that there is nowhere to hide for corrupt government departments because the spokespeople cannot miss all three briefings in a week.
If a question was not asked on Monday, it will be asked on Wednesday or on Friday. There is also the following week.
This is in stark contrast with South Africa, where a deputy minister who has confessed to a criminal offence can evade the public (and the police) for a number of days before he “hands himself over”.
Ministers go missing in action without a word. Some departments, municipalities and state owned entities hardly ever call media briefings, which is shocking because on daily basis every sphere of government makes decisions that affect citizens and spend the taxpayer’s money in the process.
More than 16 years ago former President Thabo Mbeki signed into law the Promotion of Access to Information Act, but a recent study has shown poor levels of compliance with the law on the part of government, state-owned entities and even private companies.
In its 2017 Shadow Report, the Access to Information Network (ATI Network) describes the level of compliance as dismal. Over the period August 2011 6 to July 31 2017, the study found that in government departments and state-owned entities:
• 47.5% of requests were ignored entirely (“deemed refusals”);
• Access was granted, in full or in part, to 33.15% of requests;
• The number of inter-departmental transfers increased relative to the 2015-2016 reporting period, with 11.8% of requests transferred in full or in part;
• Lack of compliance with prescribed statutory time frames was alarming, with 65% of requests not responded to within the statutory time period of 30 days;
• The most common ground for refusal was that the requested records do not exist, and this was hardly ever confirmed by way of affidavit, as is required by the act; and
• The ATI Network lodged 164 internal appeals. Although five of those appeals were still pending at the date of reporting, 79.25% of the appeals were simply ignored.
On the part of private companies:
• 40% of requests were ignored by private companies, or deemed refused; and
• Access was granted, in full or in part, to 31.8 % of requests.
So I will say it again: South African politicians and public representatives are having it too easy when it comes to accountability.
Under different circumstances many who enrich themselves using our scarce public resources would have long had their careers buried and forgotten.
As the Germans would say, their government has had a few scandals as a result of the media’s role. Where wrongdoing is exposed people are swiftly held accountable and there is no space to hide.