The Independent Media Tribunal: Sounding The Death Knell For Press Freedom

The Independent Media Tribunal: Sounding The Death Knell For Press Freedom

By: Murray Stanford [South African Photojournalist]

My post-World Cup optimism has been somewhat dampened. I am currently deeply distressed by the ANC proposed ‘Media Appeals Tribunal’. This return to apartheid-era press legislation poses a lethal threat to democracy in South Africa.

Some jurisdiction to assure sound reporting is arguably necessary. If reporters were not held accountable for producing shoddy sensationalist articles based on unfounded evidence, then lack of trust would breed cynicism towards the media. So, are the ANC then justified in their call for a tribunal?

Well it can be argued that a media tribunal is unnecessary as we already have laws pertaining to defamation, designed to hold journalists accountable. However the ANC argue that the process of contesting a defamation case is not only costly and time consuming, but also plagued by asphyxiating red tape. Therefore, we feasibly need additional protection to that provided by our courts regarding defamation litigation. This is the role of the industry ombudsman, who ensures a swift published apology subsequent to arbitration. SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande however criticises this device, labelling it as “toothless”, and lacking the capacity to issue punishment. Yet this notion of draconian punishment is exactly why South African journalists are up in arms. By ruthlessly castigating offending journalists with fines and imprisonment, the tribunal will essentially transform the media into cowering lapdogs of the ruling party. Surely the freedom of the press is fundamental to our democratic society?[i]

Won’t the autonomy of such a tribunal, imposed by and intrinsically linked to government, become jeopardised by a ruling ANC? It can be argued that any structure appointed beyond media realms will equate to an imposition and stifling of free speech. A government commissioned tribunal would face a tough task to remain detached and impermeable from coercion by members of parliament facing media allegations of corruption or wrong-doing. Deputy Minister of Transport, Jeremy Cronin attempts to defend these allegations by sighting the functionality of the Human Rights Commission as evidence that the independence of the tribunal would not be jeopardized by the ruling party. However Cronin’s defence is weak, as his dogma is diametrically opposed to the fundamental principles of our Open Society.

The role of press as ‘watchdog’ is only feasible if legislation shields the media from government involvement. Media freedom holds the people accountable for the advancement of societal functionality. This is a vital aspect of the media in a democratic state, as it is the people who must ultimately hold the government accountable. The tribunal will in essence curtail media carte blanche and subsequently hinder the capacity of the people to analyse state legislation, hold the ruling party accountable, or even be adequately enough versed on political affairs to amend the situation by way of democratic vote. By advancing manipulative government tentacles into the media dimension, we reduce the fourth estate to obedient lapdogs of the ruling elite.

Jeremy Cronin, in his Umsebenzi Online column, raises the point that certain members of the press are less than enthused about ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s proposition of a debate on the matter at Luthuli House. Surely Cronin appreciates that in our constitutional democracy, where freedom of expression is commissioned, this matter should not be up for debate at all? Don’t we have the constitutional right to repudiate the idea of state governed media censorship? ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema certainly has a valid point then (albeit from the polar-opposite perspective) in his emphasis that the issue is “not up for debate”.

The notion of press censorship is inconceivable for journalists as it is designed for state regulated transmission of media information. The ANC has seemed to consign to oblivion the fact that it wasn’t only the government that changed during our transition to a new South Africa, but also the legislation on limitations of state hegemony. Unlike the dark days of apartheid, our press freedom is now safeguarded by our constitution. The much publicised Travelgate debacle clearly indicates that certain members of parliament have skeletons in their closets which they wish to keep well-hidden from the prying eyes of our watchdog media.

Amidst the histrionics of our nations’ intensifying economic crisis, the proposed media tribunal is an example of the expanding ascendancy of conservative authoritarianism in our constituency. The notions of freedom of speech and uncensored access to information are accredited rights intrinsic to our democratic state. The tribunal should be rejected, and the ANC should be urged to instead collaborate with the press to ensure that the media ombudsman, as well as the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, is equipped with the required resources and tenability to maximise functionality. A free press is certainly in the best interests of all members of the body politic. A well-versed and efficacious majority provides the strongest safeguard against excessive hegemony and authoritarianism.

In general the ANC ostensibly view the press as a ‘white’ corporate entity, dogmatic in its attempt to slander the credibility of the current ruling elite. And in turn, the media view the ANC’s propositions as emanating from unscrupulous politicians plotting to silence the critics from their ivory towers.  For the sake of the argument, however, let’s momentarily ignore these polarised qualms and scepticism. In playing devils advocate, the ANC do profess to be striving for the aforementioned tribunal in the best interests of its citizens. President Jacob Zuma has stated categorically that his ruling party have no intention of undermining the ethos of our Constitution, and would never infringe upon the basic human rights of the people.

So, cynicism aside, if we analyse this argument from the point of view that the ANC’s motives are honourable and in the best interests of the people, may we then conclude that the tribunal proposal is innocuous and admissible? Certainly not – due to the ANC’s assertion that our nation’s default stance should not involve self-regulatory agency. Head of Journalism at Rhodes University, Guy Berger, argues that the ideology of the ANC is a form of totalisation, in direct contrast to the notion of libertarianism, and a noxious threat to our much coveted Open Society. Not only is the ruling party adamant on bullying the press into government-induced docility, but a state commissioned tribunal is a far greater threat to our Open Society than the peril of self-regulatory structures. [ii]

The judicial specifications of malicious intent are generally more difficult for a member of parliament to prove, as it is rightly assumed that they require an advanced degree of auditing by the media watchdog, due to their luminary-induced platform for corruption. The ANC needs to realise that as members of the public sphere, they are invariably going to be scrutinised by the watchdog media. If the press expose ignominious government corruption, is that not of the utmost interest to the tax-paying public? Of course it is. If the ANC were honestly champions of democracy, such public revelations unveiled by our press would be embraced. A sensible democratic state would see such revelations as being in the public interest. This is why an angered member of parliament will face an arduous task to prove malicious intent. And rightfully so – any governmental plot to amend this system is a grave threat to our democratic state, and will see us invariably venturing down the same road as Zimbabwe.

1 Price, Dr Max (2010). Address by Dr Max Price “Launch of the Open Society Index”

2 Berger, Guy (2010). Mail & Guardian: Thought Leader. “Taking the ANC media tribunal at face value”.


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