FANS of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will remember the Black Knight, who would not allow King Arthur to pass. When Arthur chops off his arm, he dismisses it as, “Just a scratch … I’ve had worse”. When he chops off his other arm, “It is just a flesh wound”. He uses his legs to kick the king’s butt, until one is hacked off. “The Black Knight always triumphs,” he cries as Arthur takes off his last limb. “All right,” Arthur says as he rides past him, “we’ll call it a draw.”
Journalists, faced by President Jacob Zuma’s resuscitation of the tired threat of a media appeals tribunal and the Protection of State Information Bill are feeling like the Black Knight. We fight to protect our media freedom, we lose a limb, we dismiss it as “just a flesh wound” and the king rides on. Both these threats to rein in the government’s media critics have been promised for years, but we have never seen so much as a concept document for the tribunal and the bill has been sitting unsigned on Zuma’s desk for almost two years.
This is not to say that these are not real threats that need to be fought by those who value media freedom, but they do have the dual effect of leaving a sword hanging perpetually over our heads and distracting from the substantive issues facing the media.
There is a lot wrong with our news media. Newsrooms are shrinking and there is less of the basic reportage needed to keep citizens abreast of what is going on and less of the editing that brings quality control. One major daily newspaper has just six reporters, which is wholly inadequate to do the basic job.
There is a homogeneity to the voices and images we see and hear that does not reflect the diversity of this country. Investigative journalism may be strong and important, but it has a narrow range, focused primarily on stories of corruption. None of these problems are attended to in any way by what government has put on the table.
Meanwhile, government is increasingly using its power and resources to promote journalistic sycophants and sideline its critics.
It has seized more direct control of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and ensured the public broadcaster is not as critical as it was in the 1990s. It put together a deal involving Chinese allies, Public Investment Corporation money and a friendly front-man to take control of one of the country’s biggest newspaper groups and bring it closer to the governing party.
The government is using parastatals and provincial governments to pull advertising revenue from critical newspapers and put them into more friendly ones. It has the SABC sponsoring the New Age newspaper and South African Airways taking out mass subscriptions at a time that these institutions need taxpayer bail-outs.
And it is quietly creating a new range of state-owned government mouthpieces to serve its purposes. Departments have been instructed to move their job adverts from papers such as the Sunday Times to the government’s Vuk’uzenzele, even if this will not reach the target market.
The draft policy on support for community media, which has drawn little attention, signals the same patterns. It proposes to sideline the agency set up to support community media, the Media Development and Diversity Agency, probably because it works at arm’s length from the state, and to set up an office in the Department of Communications to take over this role.
It proposes a new model of provincial, community TV, funded by the provinces, which probably means more government media and less funding for independent media.
All of this collectively has the effect of shrinking the space for independent, critical media — the lifeblood of our democracy.
And yet the government wants us to focus on the tribunal. As the king rides past us, he tells us, “We’ll call it a draw.”
*This column first appeared in Business Day, 22 October 2015