Is SA ready for a partisan media?

Nhlanhla Mtaka says media’s approach means a once respected ANC is now known only for leadership crises and corruption.

Almost a decade ago, Steven Friedman, the then director of the Centre for Policy Studies observed that those who traffic in ideas and information are not always the blessing to our society as they purport to be. According to Friedman, a society willing to listen to those with no vested interest in telling it what it wants to hear is likely to be stronger and better able to deal with threats. But scholars and analysts become a curse when they succumb to the arrogance of believing that they and their circler command a monopoly on insight and have no need to explain themselves.

Developments leading to the 53rd African National Congress conference have exposed us, as a country to new possibilities in so far as the role of the media in our political discourse is concern. In his classic textbook, An introduction to Political Communication, Prof Brian McNair from University of Strathclyde, argues that in contemporary politics, links are increasingly made between democracy, globalisation, neo-liberalism and mass media.

It is generally acknowledged that the mass media represents a critical element of the democratic process. The assumption is that for democracies to function, citizens require access to information as a means to make informed political choices. Similarly, politicians require the media to take stock of the public mood, present their views and interact with society.

According to McNair, there are five functions of the communication media in an ideal-type democratic society: First, they must inform citizens of what is happening around them (what we may call “surveillance” or “monitoring” functions of the media. Second, they must educate as to the meaning and significance of facts. The importance of this function explains the seriousness with which journalists protect their objectivity, since their value as educators presumes a professional detachment from the issues being analysed. Third, the media must provide a platform for public political discourse, facilitating the formation of public opinion, and feeding that opinion back to the public from whence it came.

This must include the provision of space for expression of dissent, without which the notion of democratic consensus would be meaningless. The media’s fourth function is to give publicity to governmental and political institutions- the watchdog role of journalism, exemplified by the role of the media in exposing political scandals like the South African arms deal. Finally, the media in democratic societies serve as a channel for the advocacy of political viewpoints. Parties require an outlet for the articulation of their policies and programmes to a mass audience, and thus the media must be open to them.

In short, under liberal democracy like ours, not only do media report politics; they are a crucial part of environment in which politics is pursued. They contribute to policy discussion and resolution, not only in so far as they set public agendas or provide platforms for politicians to make their views known to the public, but also in judging and critiquing the variety of political viewpoints in circulation. Based on the above understanding of the role of the media in our democracy, it can be argued that since 1994 our constitution has promoted and protect media freedoms, which were abused by the then apartheid state. However, as former minister of arts and culture, Dr Pallo Jordan noted that, while we pride ourselves in our collective achievement of media freedoms, we can not afford to lose sight of how it has been used and abused in the past.

The road to Mangaung has revealed a lot of tensions between ANC led government and the media and it has been evident that the media for right or wrong reasons is convinced that it is about to be abused by the Zuma – led ANC which is pushing for the so called Secrecy Bill. For them, a powerful ANC is dangerous for media freedoms. In reacting to the fear of the unknown the media has, its seems decided to be a serious political actor using Europe and United State approach of taking sides which results in having a preferred candidate or party.

Putting ANC’s own mistakes aside, South African media by using, in some cases journalist as pundits, features, oped columns and editorials has so far succeeded in creating a negative dominant framework for ANC. Today, a once respected liberation movement is only known for leadership crisis, sleaze, corruption and moral hypocrisy.

While there is nothing wrong with the media electing to take sides as it is the case in other countries, ones concern is whether a partisan media will able to first act fairly if its preferred candidate or party loses. Second, will it give space to other views, as we are worried about the failure of the ANC to separate between government and state, will a partisan media be able to separate being media and advocacy group? Whatever direction our media elect to take post Mangaung and towards 2014 and beyond, they will be wise to know as Jordan’s put, that no single person, no body of opinion, no political doctrine, no religious dogma no media, my addition) can claim a monopoly on truth. But perhaps a more serious question is whether having a partisan media will be a blessing or a curse for our democracy?

Mtaka is the executive director of Ingabadi Group, a political, reseach and strategic planning company. You can follow him on twitter @nhlanhlamtaka or on


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