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Patriotic reporting or corruption whitewash?

Jul 30 2015 07:24
*Leopold Scholtz

CHINA has overtaken the European Union’s position as South Africa’s most important trade partner.

It is this country that Communications Minister Faith Muthambi has just returned from after a visit where she - according to a statement before her departure – hoped to learn how news reporting can promote economic growth.

After her return, she told reporters that “our media are not doing enough to share these stories of success with our people and the people of the world. We expect our media to play their role by reporting accurate and balanced stories... stories that will promote our mutual understanding and friendship, stories that deepen our cooperation.”

What does this mean, and what implications does it have?

As to the first question, Muthambi’s words seem to fit in with repeated accusations from the government that South African media's reporting is not accurate and balanced. We do not reflect the “good news”, the way in which the lives of millions of people are being improved every day.

Muthambi, both prior to her departure and since her return, also seems to be saying that South African media could do well to learn from the way Chinese media report about their country. This fits in with President Jacob Zuma’s words of about 18 months ago, when he told a student audience in Pretoria that he expected “the coverage of news in a more patriotic manner”.

In other words, people, stop going on so much about corruption – which is after all, as Zuma argued in 2009, only a crime in a “Western paradigm”.

So we now know what Muthambi really meant. As she was speaking just after her visit to China to study that country’s media system, what does it mean for us, the South African media?

Apparently the honourable minister regards the Chinese way of doing things as an admirable example to be followed in South Africa. So what is this system?

Well, there are several international organisations monitoring press freedom all over the world. Reporters Without Borders, for instance, classifies China at 176th out of 180 countries analysed. (Russia, the government’s other bosom buddy, is placed at 152nd. South Africa itself is at number 39.)

In the top 20 - with Finland taking the lead - there are 18 Western democracies. The only countries still lower than China are Somalia, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

The American organisation Freedom House, which monitors democratic freedoms in general, classifies the press in China as “not free” with a score of 86 (100 being 100% unfree). Russia, also “not free”, receives a score of 83. (South Africa is “partly free” at 37; its relatively low score is influenced by several governmental hints about muzzling the media.)

Stringent rules and blogger arrests

Last year, the New York Times reported on new rules forcing Chinese journalists to get permission from their employers before undertaking “critical reports”. In addition, several bloggers were arrested for spreading “rumours” after exposing allegations of corruption among prominent people.

But, one may ask, so what? Why the hullabaloo about press freedom every time the ANC rolls its media eyes and looks askance at journalists?

Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, commented to the New York Times that with China’s severe pollution (something which, by the way, I witnessed myself during a visit) and corruption, unbiased and high-quality journalism is wanted more than ever.

“What public health scare or environmental disaster or toxic product won’t get reported? What corruption cases, unrest, or prosecutions won’t people get to know about?”

Yet, so it appears, South African journalists – according to Minister Muthambi – can learn something from the Chinese system, which was responsible for the incarceration of 44 journalists as of December last year. What were they guilty of? Of not writing “patriotic news”, in the words of our esteemed Giggling One?

In a speech for the World Press Freedom Committee in 1999 James D Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, specifically referred to corruption as being “at the core of development”. Corruption is taxation by stealth, he said: it reduces the possibility of escaping the vicious circle of poverty, poor health and lack of education even further.

But corruption can only be fought within a country, not from the outside. “What you can do is to create a climate in the country for a movement on both corruption and economic issues, and that has to be done from within, and that is where freedom of the press becomes crucial.

"Because if you are to get ideas moving in a society, there is an absolute need to put the magnifying glass on activities within that society and set the framework in which people have a voice and can listen.”

In other words, a free press also has implications for economic development.

Wolfensohn continued: “Freedom of the press is not a luxury. It is absolutely at the core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have the right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot bring about the public consensus to bring about change.”

Can we learn from China? Absolutely. We can learn how not to handle press freedom.

* Leopold Scholtz is an independent political analyst who lives in Europe. Views expressed are his own.

leopold scholtz  |  media  |  press freedom
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