On Monday, 9 May, the Cape Times and other Independent Media titles carried an editorial by Karima Brown and Vukani Mde. It requires, and deserves, close scrutiny. The following opinion piece appeared on the Daily Maverick.
The piece, “Celebrating’ media freedom a misnomer”, was immaculately timed to coincide with a landmark hearing in the Labour Court in which Independent Media and its executive chairman Dr Iqbal Survé reached a deal with former Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois. No direct mention was made of Dasnois, but the subtext was clear enough. In their lament of the lack of transformation in South African media, the authors made cynical use of an important issue, echoing Dr Survé in his attempt to “transform” his titles by driving out critical voices. The editorial also made some serious unfounded allegations against the organisation I am part of: the Right2Know Campaign.
We sent letters to the editors correcting the falsehoods but those went unpublished.
Here is our considered response.
I should start by pointing out that as the Right2Know Campaign, we would agree with a fair amount of what Brown and Mde wrote. Their article rightly points to the poor state of free expression and press freedom the world over and highlights the lack of transformation in South Africa’s media.
There are lines of the editorial which read like they could have been pulled from a Right2Know statement, such as the following: “In today’s South Africa, media freedom cannot be divorced from media transformation.” Over the years, the Right2Know Campaign has been one of the loudest and most consistent voices in the call for the media to be meaningfully transformed and diversified (a scan of our archives will easily prove this). Since our inception we have argued that media freedom and media diversity are two sides of the same coin and that we need more race and gender diversity in both newsrooms and boardrooms.
We need more black journalists, editors and senior managers, but that is only part of the equation, albeit an important one. “Transformation” is contested terrain in South Africa and a narrow preoccupation with increasing the proportion of black representation primarily at higher management and ownership levels is simply inadequate and, in itself, only goes so far in addressing the massive disparities in the way media is produced and consumed in this country.
Media ownership is indeed still concentrated in the hands of a small privileged elite, but “transformation” that sees itself merely as the darkening of that elite’s complexion is hardly transformation at all. It’s palace politics. Yet this, it appears, is precisely what transformation means to those at the upper echelons of Independent – reproducing the country’s broader elite transition while overlooking the architecture of capitalism and apartheid that perpetuates the inequality of the past.
All too often we see the claim of “transformation” being used as a fig leaf to disguise the naked self-enrichment of a black elite, and this only maintains the unjust relations of the past. The Survé takeover of the Independent from its previous asset-stripping owners, controversial though it was, did contribute to the racial diversification of media ownership – something we have previously acknowledged on record. But it did nothing to challenge the monopolistic concentration of ownership. Print media remains dominated by four major media houses, of which Independent Media is one, and they all reflect an urban middle-class bias.
We at Right2Know have consistently pushed for greater diversity not only in terms of ownership but also by promoting alternative corporate media. We have campaigned for better funding for community and alternative media, and defended and promoted public broadcasting that is independent from state and commercial interests and able to reflect the views and concerns of poor and marginalised South Africans. Whether through ignorance or disingenuousness, Brown and Mde’s article paints R2K as an organisation that is opposed to transformation.
It is dishonest to claim, as the editorial did, that R2K’s recent Press Freedom Day statement said nothing of transformation. The opposite is in fact true – half the statement was about transformation! To give a taste of what it contained: “If media consumption and production opportunities remain in the grip of monopolies, they will continue to be enjoyed disproportionately by the economically powerful. In a country with such high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, appropriate interventions may be necessary to counter market forces that contribute to this phenomenon.”
Those who claim to be for transformation ought to join our call for breaking up giant media corporations and for greater support for community media.
Those with a genuine commitment to progressive change in the media landscape would also be alert to how a transformation agenda might be appropriated by self-serving elites. The Dasnois case opened up a bigger debate on transformation in which she was publicly smeared by her former bosses and accused of presiding over an untransformed newsroom. The fantastical reason given for her dismissal was that after the news of Mandela’s death broke she “disrespected” the deceased leader by choosing to run with a four-page wraparound instead of pulling the paper’s front page story. But reports of the Dasnois settlement in Independent titles would have audiences believe that that front page story, about a fisheries tender irregularly awarded to a Sekunjalo company, had nothing to do with her being sacked, nor that her independence and critical editorial line more generally had anything to do with the matter.
Ulterior motives in Dasnois’ dismissal have been conspicuously absent in the Independent’s coverage. But Dasnois has been soundly vindicated by the settlement, which saw the Survé side retracting previous claims that she was motivated by racism and showed disrespect to Mandela, and admitting that the contested decision on how the Cape Times covered Mandela’s death – which, incidentally, was recognised by Time Magazine as one of the top Mandela covers in the world – was her editorial prerogative. Those admissions were made in a joint statement after the settlement was struck, but the Independent’s subsequent reporting on the matter has been nothing short of an insult to journalistic ethics.
At least two articles have attempted to turn reality on its head by portraying Survé and Independent Media as the victors in all of this, citing lengthy quotes by Survé contradicting his commitments in the joint statement, reviving dispelled allegations and outright lying that the Time Magazine honour was a “fabrication” (a quick Google search will show otherwise). In a serious breach of the Press Code, no attempt was made to get Dasnois’ response to what are frankly slanderous claims coupled with blatant inaccuracies. There is now a very strong case to be made with the Ombudsman.
Those at the helm of Independent must take responsibility for the poor quality of journalism. A narrow and highly partisan reading of transformation has led to an exodus of veteran staff and contributors who have left with their skills and institutional knowledge. There are indeed times when transformation calls for tough hiring and firing decisions, demanding that the old guard be replaced, but purging journalists with integrity and progressive credentials for being outspoken and failing to toe the company line, is only a disservice to transformation and has a chilling effect on critical journalism. With little standing in between editorial and managerial sides at the Independent, it’s small wonder we see such grovelling attempts to absolve Survé in his own papers. The coverage of the settlement tell us that the doctor is using his publications as PR machines.
Alide Dasnois’ hearing on 9 May was an opportunity for the editors at the Independent to take a strong and unambiguous stance for press freedom and assert their independence from their employer – a businessman who has revealed himself to be no friend of press freedom. The lack of solidarity for Dasnois from the Independent’s editorial heads, the shoddy reporting on the settlement, and the decision to level unfounded attacks against a coalition fighting for genuine media transformation, raise serious questions about their commitment to press freedom and the rights of media workers and give credence to the idea that the editors are acting in the interests of their bosses, even when the actions of those bosses so brazenly threaten media freedom. Media freedom without transformation is a hollow concept, but a “transformed” media that is unfree is worthless.
Micah Reddy is the media freedom and diversity organiser at the Right2Know Campaign