OPINION by Iqbal Jassat
Recent changes effected within parts of South Africa’s mainstream media, may be interpreted differently by consumers. Some may use the glass of water test and come to contrasting positions: half full or half empty.
This after all is the nature of the media beast. It’s newsroom and editorial desks either reflects the demographics of this country’s diverse population, or not, or at best attempts to inject changes urged by demands of transformation.
Any independent observer will in any event be able to confirm that the dynamics of change, especially in a country which was fed an apartheid-laden diet, will remain in a flux. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the battle playing out in the courts and the corridors of power within the SABC.
Though its a far cry from the time when the Human Rights Commission (HRC) investigated racism in the media, it could be argued that the resistance to change by the then white-controlled conservative media, has had an adverse effect.
For instance if willingness to transform media had been embraced by accepting and enforcing the recommendations made by the HRC, we would have seen less tensions today.
If media is understood to function as a purveyor of news and information, it’s heartbeat will always remain content and how its coloured. South Africa after all remains trapped in racism. Packaging of content will always remain contentious no matter how hard journalists try to be balanced and objective.
The case of Palestine is instructive, for it relates to our own historic struggle against apartheid. The expectation by Israel’s lobby in South Africa that media will retain its disgraced previous habit of suppressing critique of settler-colonial practices is a fanciful misplaced hope.
Just as Eurocentric content has justifiably receded, so too has the era of uncritical acceptance of Israel’s policies. Yet if we lend an ear to media practitioners, the lobby’s demand seems to be precisely this: lay off Israel or face our wrath!
Content is driven by news-worthiness. Its colour may not be aesthetically pleasing to the lobby, but does it mean that media’s independence to report and comment be held to ransom? Censorship, which was a hallmark of apartheid, is, alongside robust investigative reporting, a key element in the transformation campaign.
Freedom of the media is subject to limits as embodied in the constitution. Not the arbitrary decisions by media owners to suppress information as dictated to by commercial interests. That pro-Israel pressure groups enjoy support from corporate giants, allows them enormous financial leverage to influence content.
If people are freaked out by the drama playing out at SABC, surely they ought to be equally outraged by the disproportionate power wielded by Israel’s fan club. Both remain impediments in the ongoing struggle to free media from abuse of power.
Investigative reports have in contrast to censorship, laid bare the extent of corruption and maladministration in the public sector. The vigour whereby probes are conducted to expose the rot that has beset government circles, best describes the ability by media to function independently.
But why not the same determination to go after thugs operating in the private sector? Do corporate captains enjoy a degree of immunity? If so is it due to the leverage they possess in terms of adspend?
Consumers may not be privy to boardroom antics and decisions which impact on journalists’ ability to report without fear. But they certainly are able to read between the lines.
Paradoxes apart, the twist and turns in mainstream media’s landscape cannot be divorced from the power of social media. It has a special utility in addition to empowering ordinary people to share as well as access information. Though hoax sites proliferate and seek to confuse or distort, similar patterns by individual journalists allied to faceless intelligence agencies, do function within mainstream media.
As in the case of Palestine where Israel’s hasbara agents act as pressure groups, so too in the case of Islamophobia, where so-called “terror experts” have abused media space to ferment anti-Muslim hate. They have twinned by converging their interests to roll back advances made thus far by protagonists of media freedom.
For South Africa and the West in general, the ultimate barometer to gauge how free media is, will be the question of Palestine.
Iqbal Jassat is an executive member of the Media Review Network, a Johannesburg based think tank. Twitter: @ijassat