Saturday, July 01, 2006

Citizens, bloggers & the 'Fourth Estate'

On 30 June 2006 Lizette Rabe, head of the postgraduate Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, wrote in a article:

Become more media savvy: "It's not only a matter of being media literate, to be able to read between the lines, that enables us to understand any given news, whether in print, broadcast or new media.

It is also knowing about your rights as a citizen in terms of freedom of expression - and how it is or is not manipulated by those who think they have a right to decide what others may think and say."

Summarising and paraphrasing freely the article argues the following: South Africa's media freedom is largely dependent on citizen's appreciation of their constitutional right to freedom of expression. When 'apparatchiks' of the public broadcaster claim the right to manage how journalists cover the news, even indirectly, one has to be worried. While South Africa boasts a 'well-developed media infrastructure' we need 'media literacy campaigns' to create awareness of the important role of the Fourth Estate in a democracy. In protecting the Fourth Estate, an emerging "Fifth Estate" (bloggers) is sometimes mentioned as protector of the former - but this is not the solution. Members of the media have to fend for themselves by standing up to undue interference.

Her comments follow on two disturbing incidents in recent times. The one is a decision by the powers that be at the public broadcaster (SABC) to cancel, at the last moment, the broadcast of a 'un-authorised'-style documentary on President Thabo Mbeki. The other is the revelation that journalists at the SABC were instructed to avoid using a number of commentators in putting together news stories. What the blacklisted commentators seem to have in common is critical views of President Mbeki and the policies of the ruling ANC government. In both cases the SABC aggressively defended itself against accusations of censorship, but commentators and other sections of the media cried foul. The SABC at first flatly denied the blacklisting of some commentators, but reverted to an enquiry into the matter after a SAFM (English radio service) presenter confirmed on air that he in the past received instructions not to interview some commentators.

With accusations and counter-accusations flying around it's always difficult to form a clear picture of what's going on behind the scenes. However, to paraphrase an Afrikaans expression, where there's smoke there's a fire. That is, while the finer details may be disputed, it is clear that all is not right.

Is media freedom under threat in South Africa?
What was sorely missing in the whole saga, at least in the coverage that I was exposed to, is a strong and unequivocal statement from the SABC and the cabinet on the importance of, and their respect for, the media's freedom. Pleading ignorance and discrediting your accusers is not a satisfying answer to the core question - is media freedom under threat in present day South Africa? Truth be told, we have never before seen the impressive media freedom in South Africa, that has become a feature of our democracy since 1994.

Citizens of any country, including ours, cannot take this extremely important pillar of democracy for granted. If it crumbles, the whole democratic temple will follow suit. In the bigger picture of the South African media the two incidents that has caused so much discussion is in my view an exception, rather than being the rule. However, the way the SABC and cabinet responded to the accusations, is cause for concern. It suggests that in the case of the public broadcaster much more pressure needs to be applied to guard against the cancer of censorship.

I believe the privately owned media is at present more or less free from undue interference from their owners. Most definitely something to be thankful for.

Citizens' role in protecting media freedom?
But what to do about the SABC and its 'owner'? That journalists should have the courage of their conviction to stand up against even the mildest form of censorship, is a given. Where this does not happen all hope is lost. But what about the rest of society. Can we play a role?

The idealistic answer is 'hell yes!'. In practice it's not so simple. The management of the SABC is not elected and often not seen by the general public as their servants. This is off-course a misconception. In this sense Ms Rabe's contention that South Africa needs 'media literacy campaigns' makes a lot of sense. The media often performs well in informing, reminding and educating citizens on important events in the past. Programmes and content around Youth Day (commemorating the Soweto uprising of 1976), Sharpville, etc. come to mind. Sometimes the coverage of these events take on an almost religious element.

However, in taking a critical view of current affairs and policy implications for the future the same vigor is not always displayed - especially at the SABC. The South African public needs to reminded by the well covered events of the past, that if the Fourth Estate does not function freely the first three estates (government) is bound to get up to no good (think blacked-out sentences on the front page of South African newspapers in the 80's...). We as citizens should think about the dangers of any level of censorship today in those kind of terms. Even a government voted in by the kind of majority the ANC received in the last election should still continuously be put under the microscope. Being elected is a responsibility, not a chance to do as you please.

Blogging community
I was intrigued by Ms Rabe's mentioning of the Blogging community as the 'Fifth Estate'. Being new to the act of Blogging it creates the temptation in me of taking on an air of smug self-importance. Uh-hum, I'm looking out for your rights bro - I'm a blogger! However, she shoots down that notion in her very next sentence. I concur. The media's role is unique and cannot be substituted by blogging. In fact, the notion could be quite dangerous. Bloggers answer only to themselves and are notoriously subjective. While it is an obvious fact that no media outlet is fully objective, the profession of journalism is a well established and developed one. It does have checks and balances built into it and tend to be transparent. Blogging is all too often a bunch of ignorant hooligans who rant of subjective, untested and unbalanced arguments and statements. Often blogging is an act of activism, rather than empowering readers through information. Covering contradicting viewpoints in a fair and balanced manner is something I've seldom encountered in the bloggosphere.

Still, even though the medium is very much flawed, it does have an important role to play when it comes to civil liberties such as freedom of expression. In the ideal world we still mingle with the people in our street and know our neighbours by first name. In the real world we don't. Most of us are buried in work, we socialize and discuss issues with a small group of like-minded close friends or associates in our very limited spare time. This can be replicated on the Net off-course, but you can also choose to talk to strangers as much as you like.

In the world of blogging, as opposed to chat-rooms and news groups, you can get to know strangers intimately in terms of their thought processes. Something which normally takes weeks, months or years in the real world. Multiply this hundreds of times and a potentially life-enriching experience awaits you. It's like walking through a massive stadium where scores of people are huddled in small groups discussing interesting (or frivolous...) subjects. You are free to walk around and join or leave a discussion without being frowned upon. The guy who happens to be speaking can do so uninterrupted for as long as he/she likes.

If you walk around enough you will get to hear really smart people with interesting opinions or fascinating tales to tell. In short you can deepen you insight on just about any topic under the sun. You can do so by talking and listening to people who you would never meet in real life and may not feel comfortable meeting in the company of your like-minded real life friends. In a space like this, questioning and discussing at length the state of civil liberties can progress unhindered (unless you're living in China or the like...).

I suppose a difference between the (electronic & print) media and the bloggosphere is that the former speaks to millions at the same time while the latter speaks (potentially) to thousands or even millions on a personal level one at a time. Try to tell your breakfast programme presenter that his/her take on an event is totally skewed and shortsighted...

So how can blogging assist in protecting the Fourth Estate? One way is probably by making netizen-citizens used to exercising freedom of expression on the Net, unhindered. The idea of a state apparatchik censoring your blog or limiting which opinions you may quote in it is simply absurd. The extension of this to the journalist delivering your dose of daily news is obvious.

No comments: