Constitutionally Speaking: In defense of the Internet

In defense of the Internet
Sep 9th, 2010
by Pierre De Vos

Which readers of this Blog (whom I assume are mostly relatively well informed) know the names of Mr Sbu Zikode, Mr Mzwakhe Mdlalose, Ms Bandile Mdlalose, Ms Zandile Nsibande or Mr Zodwa Nsibande? They are, of course the President, Vice President, Secretary General, Chairperson of the Women’s League and Chairperson of the Youth League of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban Shack Dwellers Movement, one of the most influential and vibrant social movements in South Africa who, on its website, describes itself as the largest organization of the militant poor in South Africa.

These are not household names because the leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo hardly ever appear on SABC TV or radio or ETV and are seldom quoted in the daily serious newspapers (media consumed by the elites of all races). Abahlali is hardly ever quoted exactly because they style themselves as an organization that represents the militant poor in opposition to elites of all races – including the elites who sit in our government and drive in R1 million cars in blue light convoys. These are the very elites who control the SABC, ETV and the printed media and produce news for other elites (like those who write and read this Blog).

Last year when Abahlali leaders and ordinary members were viscously attacked by thugs, allegedly in collusion with members of the police, some newspapers did report on the matter and when it successfully challenged the constitutionality of the apartheid-style Kwa-Zulu/Natal Slums Act it was also reported – scantily – in the media.

But as a general rule, both the ANC-aligned SABC and private independent media have not done a good job of reporting on the actions of this group. What motivates its members? What are the conditions that have produced this organisation representing the interests of the militant poor? What is it that motivates its members and what does the organisation wish to achieve? What does it mean for our democracy? One would be hard pressed to find any reporting or analysis on such pressing questions in our media.

I therefore agree with Steven Friedman that there is something seriously wrong with the way in which our media operates (although I suspect that the problem is even more complex than he suggests). Writing in Business Day, yesterday Friedman pointed out that:

Government attacks on the press have ensured that it is hard to question journalists’ priorities for fear of being seen to encourage censorship. But it should be possible both to defend the press’s right to tell us everything we need to know and to complain that, in the main, it does not tell us — to oppose not only the controls politicians place on papers but those journalists place on themselves….

The problem here is a pack journalism in which some decide what the story is and everyone follows — and reportage which is obsessed with the actions of a few political figures rather than the patterns which may shape where our country is headed; its practitioners are judged by how connected they are to politicians, not by whether they identify trends.

Our media – both the SABC and the independent media – has an inherent bias in favour of process stories focusing on the official political horse races: What happens in Parliament? Which leaders of the alliance are fighting with each other? Does President Jacob Zuma have any chance of being elected to a second term? Is the Alliance a dead horse or will it survive until Jesus comes back? Is Julius Malema’s fortunes rising or falling?

Our media also has ideological and class biases, reflecting the anxieties and the concerns of members of the middle and upper classes and political elites. The way in which the scandalous behaviour by some striking workers were reported recently (by both the SABC and the private media) served certain ideological and class interests. It focused very strongly (but admittedly not exclusively) on these excesses, and this served the ideological and class interests of the rulers. (No ANC leader complained about the way in which the media vilified the strikers, for example.)

Reporting is about making choices: about what to report and what to leave out, about what to highlight and what to underplay, about how to interpret what is being reported and how to structure the narrative of our daily lives in a way that would make often chaotic events understandable to the consumers of news. We have a tendency to want to fit events into a bigger story, a master narrative if you will, and when the media constructs such a narrative they do so to serve certain class and ideological interests.

The South African media is of course not unique in this regard. Noam Chomsky writes in Manufacturing Consent that it is the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilise public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector in that country. The same argument could be applied locally.

This does not mean that the ANC proposal for a Media Appeals Tribunal would be a good thing either. Such a tribunal would merely attempt further to narrow the class and ideological focus of the media to prevent reporting that would be damaging to the governing party and those individuals who circle like hyenas around the party bosses in search of influence and money. If the Tribunal is to have any teeth, it would probably be unconstitutional in any case.

What is then to be done?

My answer would be that one has to accept that in a capitalist society with a free media, that media will always be biased in favour of the elites in and outside of government and will advance their interests. Luckily we live in the age of the Internet and with a little effort one can obtain news and analysis with a slightly broader perspective from the “interweb” (as Die Antwoord might say).

When the ANC discussion document talks about a diversification of the media, it does not take cognisance of this fact. If the ANC was really interested in creating a vibrant and ideologically diverse media, it would not pin its hopes on the Gupta-financed newspaper called New Age. Instead, it would focus on the ways in which citizen journalists and members of social movements can use the internet to disseminate news about its activities and ideas which are not often reflected in the mainstream media.

What is needed is a radical programme to make the internet cheaper and more accessible to ordinary people and to provide support for the kind of citizen journalism and analysis that would provide a far broader spectrum of news and ideas than is currently available in the mainstream media? But I guess this is not what the ANC has in mind, as the Internet is an unruly beast that cannot easily be controlled. The last thing the ANC wants is to give the militant poor (to use just one example) a platform that could be used to organise against the party and the government of the day.

But the internet is here to stay and even if the ANC manages to impose a Media Appeals Tribunal to censor the mainstream media, it will soon find out that this will not stop the bad news from coming out. Neither will it stifle dissent from those whom the governing party truly fears: the unemployed and militant poor.