The enemy in the newsroom


FREEDOM OF SPEECH and freedom of the press, though both enshrined in the Constitution, are now under greater pressure than at any time since 1990. This is clear both from the spat between President Thabo Mbeki and the Democratic Party's Tony Leon, and from the inquiry of the Human Rights Commission into racism in the media. The HRC has concluded in its report, Faultlines, that racism is a problem in the media. Its conclusion, unsupported by any serious evidence, is not surprising for HRC chairman Barney Pityana had found the media guilty of racism even before the "inquiry" began, while one of its panel members, Margaret Legum, is the author of the remarkable dictum that "racism in its widest and most useful meaning cannot be proved, only recognised." Recognised by her, one assumes. This is the means to demonise all those who speak out of turn.

In a mature democracy the HRC's emphasis on "subliminal", "institutional" and other forms of racism which cannot be substantiated and are "recognised" only by the elect would be laughed out of court. Yet the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) actively welcomed the HRC's verdict as "a sober assessment of race coverage". Clearly Sanef cannot be relied upon to defend press freedom: it has become part of the problem not part of the solution. And that problem is the steady erosion of press independence not by law or forcible constraint but through a gradual process of willing surrender, a cheerful acceptance within the media itself of wooden horses wheeled through the gates. Throughout the long night of apartheid the English-language press always defended a basic independence. Today it seems it is giving it away without protest, either in a spirit of misplaced patriotism or for the sake of a quiet life.

Mthatha Tsedu, acting editor of The Star now chairs Sanef. On most issues Tsedu's columns reveal him as an unswerving ANC ideologue and Mbeki loyalist. Independent Newspapers must know what it is doing by promoting Tsedu to run its flagship paper, just as Sanef knows what it is doing by electing him to its chairmanship.

One result of this surrender is a spread of government-mindedness throughout the press. Consider the press commentary on the Mbeki-Leon affair. Leon was taken to task because he dared speak out strongly against President Mbeki's view of Aids. Most commentators tried to write about the tiff as if it was a 50-50 affair and many went out of their way to emphasise that in using a phrase such as "snake oil and quackery" to describe the Virodene episode Leon was guilty of insensitivity, colonialism, racial arrogance and generally ungentlemanly behaviour in our fragile and refined political culture. These commentators failed to point out that Mbeki is unjustified in calling such remarks racist - what was Virodene but snake oil and quackery? - or that Leon's rhetoric pales beside that the ANC reserves for it opponents. Remember Dr Zuma, when health minister, claiming of the DP that "if they had it their way we would all die of Aids". There is no mistaking this crude pressure for racial and political conformity, nor is there any doubt as to the apparently limitless willingness of newspaper management to placate and give ground to such pressures, making them enemies of press freedom within the media. If such folk have their way then all comment as robust as Leon's will be censored or go unreported. We will be left with a soothing anodyne chorus led by praise-singing journalists.

Steve Tshwete, minister of safety and security, has shown the way already. If there is too much bad publicity about crime, why it is the fault of the media: stop the publication of crime statistics. At least Sanef has protested about this move. Helpfully, the moratorium on crime figures will also silence the controversy over the incidence of rape. Mbeki has condemned as unpatriotic those who make too much of our rape and Aids statistics. With the government failing on many fronts, this policy is clearly extensible. The brain drain becoming intolerable? Ban the emigration figures. Aids deaths soaring? Censure the Opposition for mentioning it and threaten Aids scientists who criticise the government. Per capita income falling? Attack the racist agenda of those who point such things out. This approach may succeed in controlling the domestic arena, but abroad such things are noticed, with consequences for confidence and investment.

Our editors and proprietors, whatever their colour, only need look next door to Zimbabwe to see what happened to the press there when a liberation spirit of uncritical patriotism swamped the liberal spirit of critical independence. Press freedom has had to be reconquered in Zimbabwe in the face of torture, bomb attacks and attempted assassinations. We do not want, we do not need to go through that.