A free press can't be free

Andrew Donaldson writes on the state of media freedom in SA


IN other news, South Africa is in 31st place in the Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders) 2020 World Press Freedom Index. This is the same position as last year. 

However, the survey, released earlier in the week, suggests an erosion is in process, given that media freedom has deteriorated globally by 12 per cent since 2013, when RSF’s annual review was first introduced.

Once again, European countries dominate the rankings, with the top places going to Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland. The highest African countries on the list are Namibia in 23rd place, Cabo Verde in 25th, Ghana in 30th, South Africa, as mentioned, in 31st, Burkina Faso in 38th and Botswana at 39th. Bottom of the 180-nation list is North Korea.


What’s clear from the index is that the United States, in 45th place, appears to have abandoned all claim to be a champion of press freedom at home and abroad. Arrests, physical assaults, public denigration and the harassment of journalists continued in 2019. Much of this animus, RSF says, stems directly from Donald Trump and his administration. “This dangerous anti-press sentiment has trickled down to local governments, institutions and the American public.” 

In 2013, the US was in 32nd place — and South Africa 52nd. We may have swapped positions, but our media is nevertheless subject to the same antipathy directed at American journalists.

“An investigative journalism culture is well established,” the Paris-based RSF said, “but apartheid-era legislation and terrorism laws are used to limit coverage of government institutions when ‘national interest’ is supposedly at stake. The state security agency spies on some journalists and taps their phones. Others are harassed and subjected to intimidation campaigns if they try to cover certain subjects involving the ruling ANC, government finances, the redistribution of land to the black population or corruption.”

Furthermore, RSF noted that the EFF were issued with a high court warning following its “invective and hate speech against journalists”. It added: “It is not unusual for journalists, especially women journalists, to be mocked, insulted and even threatened on social media, sometimes by politicians or their supporters.”

The global overview was just as gloomy — and no less pertinent where South Africa is concerned. The next 10 years, RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire has said, will be pivotal for press freedom because of various “converging crises” affecting the future of journalism. These include geopolitical upheavals and the attendant aggression from authoritarian regimes, a growing public mistrust, suspicion and hatred of the media, and economic downturns that impoverish journalism. 

Compounding all this is the global public health crisis. “The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor,” Deloire said. “What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today.”

A clear correlation exists, he said, between suppression of media freedom in response to the pandemic, and a country’s ranking in the index. China (177th) and Iran (173rd) heavily censored reports on the outbreak. Iraq (162nd) stripped Reuters of its licence for three months over a report that questioned official Covid-19 figures. In several countries, the introduction in several countries of draconian “coronavirus laws” that severely penalise the publication of information deemed to be false and misleading is another cause for concern.

South Africa’s jackbooted response to coronavirus “fake news” includes the threat of a six-month jail term or a fine, or both, for publishing “any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about (a) Covid-19; (b) Covid-19 infection status of any person; or (c) any measure taken by the Government to address Covid-19”.

I worry about this. Which of the following statements, for example, is the more deceptive: “Banning the sale of roasted chicken is necessary to combat the pandemic,” or “Banning the sale of roasted chicken is not necessary to combat the pandemic”? I am aware of government’s stance here, and I am aware of my own. By contradicting the official position on roasted chicken, am I intentionally deceiving anyone? 

The lockdown regulations were gazetted on March 18, too late for consideration for the 2020 RSF index. But their effect has been noted elsewhere. On Tuesday, The South African reported that pandemic-related information on SA social media is second only to Singapore for accuracy. “Thanks to the South African government’s stance on fake news — by criminalising the spread of misinformation — South Africa received a reliability score of 78.29 per cent.” Singapore’s reliability score was 90.72 per cent.

Researchers at the COVID19 Infodemics Observatory analysed some 100 million public messages to gauge social media response and ranked 89 countries affected by the crisis. Their work follows a WHO report that the outbreak had been accompanied by a massive “infodemic” — a glut of information, some accurate, some not — making it difficult to find trustworthy information.

It’s noteworthy that Singapore is ranked 158th on the world press freedom index, seven places down from last year. According to the RSF, its repressive media regulations are almost as bad as China’s, with authorities now threatening journalists with up to 20 years in prison if they don’t toe the official line. Self-censorship is widespread as a result. On top of this, Singapore introduced an “anti-fake news” law in 2019 that allowed the government to order media outlets and digital platforms to change any content deemed “incorrect”.

The correlation between repressive press regulations and “reliable” Covid-19 information on social media is marked in some countries. Malaysia, 101st on the index, recently repealed “Orwellian” fake news laws, although a “legislative arsenal” of anti-press measures remains in place. Its social media pandemic messaging is deemed the fifth-most trustworthy in the world.

Ditto Thailand, 140th on the index. In December 2019, a Thai journalist was sentenced to two years in prison for tweeting about the appalling conditions suffered by migrant workers. Thai tweets and posts on the coronavirus are considered the world’s 12th most trusted — and with reason. “Any criticism of the government is liable to lead to harsh reprisals facilitated by draconian legislation and a justice system that follows orders,” RSF said. “A cyber-security law adopted in February 2019 gave the executive even more powers and poses an additional threat to online information.”

One crisis impacting on press freedom in South Africa, which the 2020 RSF index did not consider, is media ownership and the way proprietors have laid waste to newspapers through appalling mismanagement. 

It has become commonplace for newspaper bosses to complain that “new media” had impacted disastrously on profit margins. All too often this is the sort of weasel'y executive prattle that reporters hear each year come wage negotiations or, more ominously, on the cusp of yet another asset-stripping, cost-cutting exercise intended to mollify shareholders. Never once will it be said that there’s no money because they cocked up.

The chorus from the chattering classes that the internet has “killed” print journalism and that the digital revolution has destroyed the 24-hour news cycle feeding the dinosaur newspapers grows ever more gleeful and hostile in the fake news era. 

Consider, for example, this post in the comments thread below last week’s column: “We are sick of you leftist identity politics freaks. Sick of your lies and your twisting of facts in the name of progress and of inclusiveness. Your lies won’t stand up to even casual scrutiny pal, you must realise you aren’t in the age of print media any more.” And all because I’d mentioned a report that had appeared in The Guardian.

It is glaringly obvious that managers blithely disregarded the challenges thrown up by the digital revolution. The media landscape is littered with the carcasses of closed titles as a result; those newspapers that still appear do so as pale shadows of their former robust selves. 

Happily, and talking of dinosaurs, some of the grander institutions have developed internet-based business models and strategies and appear to have turned a corner. The New York Times, for example, reported a net income of $55.2-million last year after posting losses the previous year. It turned a profit while employing a staggering 1 600 journalists — a record high. Business is just as good at the newly robust Washington Post and the New Yorker. Paywalls are rising all over the internet, and a simple lesson has been learned: readers will pay for quality, well-produced journalism, long-form personal writing and exclusive information. 

Even where there isn’t a paywall, there are customers. The Guardian posted operating profits of £800 000 for 2018–19. According to the BBC, this was the newspaper’s “first such profit in two decades and the culmination of one of the most significant turnarounds in recent British media history”. The business model here was one that very few thought would succeed: an “eccentric” decision to ask its online readers to pay for content that that they could anyway access for free on the internet.

The more typical media business model, however, is to copy the old press barons. From the late 19th century onwards, these oligarchs of ink — figures like William Randolph Hearst, Lord Beaverbrook, John S Knight and later Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, Robert Maxwell, Axel Springer, Ted Turner, Conrad Black and Tony O’Reilly — were wielders of enormous power and political influence. They were also as rich as Croesus, newspapers largely being licences to print money.

Their time has passed. Profits from the media houses are slow in coming these days, and when they do, they’re thin and gruel-like. Still, that hasn’t stopped the dreams of of media empires and all that public legacy stuff. Hence the destructive combination of toxic greed and narcissistic hubris that is Iqbal Survé, executive chair of Independent Media.

Enough has been written of Swervy and the money that his Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium borrowed from the Public Investment Corporation to buy a 55 per cent stake in Independent News & Media SA, the country’s second biggest newspaper group, from its Irish parent company in 2013. 

Swervy clearly had no idea what he was getting into, and the R2-billion he paid for The StarCape TimesThe MercuryArgus and other titles was way, way more than they were worth. For 17 years or so, the Irish, Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News & Media plc, leeched the company dry, siphoning all profits offshore without contributing much in return, and effectively sold this self-aggrandising patsy a lemon. 

Further details are contained in Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield’s Paper Tiger: Iqbal Survé and the Downfall of Independent Newspapers (Tafelberg, 2019). It’s an excellent behind-the-scenes account of what went down at the Cape Times following Dasnois’s dismissal as its editor in December 2013. The book offers no clue, though, as to why anyone in their right mind would lend Swervy the time of day, let alone R2-billion. This is a little perplexing, as the man who emerges from these pages is, to be frank, delusional. When it comes to pathological porkies, he gives Carl Niehaus a run for his money. As for modesty, well, he’s no better than Donald Trump. Hard to believe, but true.

By 2018, a large proportion of the PIC investment in Sekunjalo had been written off, and soon afterwards, Swervy and his media company were reportedly being investigated by the PIC for alleged accounting irregularities.  

It could be argued, perversely, that the R2-billion loan was money well spent. In return, the government effectively eviscerated a once-powerful media house. One by one, Swervy rid his newspapers of its best and most experienced staffers, journalists who had routinely embarrassed the ruling party. In their place came supine hacks, toadies and sycophants. 

Earlier this month, staff at Independent Media and Swerve’s African News Agency were told their salaries were to be cut, reportedly by 45 per cent in some cases. The reason given was that the pandemic has impacted badly on circulation and advertising revenues. Observers, however, suspect a more dangerous malady.

Right now, we need a strong independent press, one determined to pursue the truth. “You submit to tyranny,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder has written, “when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends on individualism.”

That may seem overly dramatic, this talk of “tyranny”. But Cyril Ramaphosa has agreed to the deployment of more than 73 000 extra troops in cities and townships because the “outbreak of Covid-19 continues to increase with reported cases across the Republic of South Africa”.

This alone is cause for alarm, given reports of security force brutality. But now it appears that the SANDF believes that it is not accountable to Parliament. The generals met with MPs on Wednesday to discuss the deployment. It was clear from some of their statements, that there will, in fact, be very little discussion.

“You’re not our clients,” SANDF chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Lindile Yam, told lawmakers. “We are not the police. We take instructions from the commander-in-chief [the President].” This despite the fact that, according to the Constitution, national security is  “subject to the authority of Parliament and the national executive”.

Then the defence force’s chief of joint operations, Lieutenant-General Rudzani Maphwanya, warned those who want to “undermine” the military campaign against the pandemic: “While we are being provoked, law enforcement will not allow anyone to insult the president. We will react immediately. It is important that this is known.”

Sorry, general, but in South Africa it’s permissible in terms of the law to insult the president. Which is good, because Squirrel did come across as a bit silly wrestling with his face mask on Thursday evening. First it was over his eyes, then he fiddled a bit with his ears before finally getting it over his mouth. 

I was amused. 

See nothing. Hear nothing. Say nothing. The kind of press Luthuli House likes.