The fallacy of a ‘free media’ in South Africa

Over the past few weeks, the phrase ‘free media’ has been used to characterise the media landscape of South Africa. Although the phrase has been in use for quite sometime now, it was catapulted into the national conversation again after the Black First Land First (BLF) movement picketed outside the home of Tiso Blackstar Editor-at-large, Peter Bruce. The organisation has consistently maintained that the white owned media in South Africa is inherently anti-black and its white journalists, like Bruce, are racists hiding behind journalism to entrench the status quo.

As a prompt response to the picket (a response which was absent when black journalists were physically assaulted), the civil society formation, South African National Editors Forum (SANEF), interdicted BLF at the Johannesburg High Court, citing the infringement of Bruce’s right to freedom of speech and that the picket was a danger to South Africa’s ‘free media’.

In 2015, black students in South Africa spoke with a resounding voice, saying that the negotiated settlement of 1994 had changed little for black people. The more radical splinters of the Rhodes Must Fall movement not only advocated for the removal of the statue of racist imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes from the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, or even for the changing of names of universities, but correctly identified that this country was still structurally racist, patriarchal and deeply capitalistic. They correctly located this unfreedom for black people in land theft and slavery. The problem, for them, was the stealing of land and black bodies, and the creation of these into commodities for white labour, integrity and enjoyment.

There is no point in rehashing some of the correct theoretical leaps that the RMF movement made here. They have been the subject of discussions across the country for the past three years. But, it is important to touch on these because they give a glimpse of the context within which we currently operate.

Media (un)freedom: Black death and a not-so-free South Africa

“Black death is the modern bourgeois-state’s recreational pastime, but the hunting season is not confined to the time (and place) of political society; blacks are fair game as a result of a progressively expanding civil society as well,” writes Frank B. Wilderson when speaking of Gramscian Marxism and its inability to think of the black subject as one that creates and maintains (through slavery and gratuitous violence) the logic of ‘civil society’, instead of taking part in civil society, in the way that a white subaltern does. Put another way, black and white people do not occupy the same plane in the structure of society. Black people occupy the plane of death, denigration, and humiliation, while white people are on the polar opposite end – representing life, honour and freedom. Wilderson’s main point is that black death is not only confined to the workings of a political society, but “a thriving civil society” (as most white liberals and radicals like to allude to) is as equally fatal for black people, as it needs their death for its coherence.

This limping structure of relations between black and white people maintains the functioning of the media landscape in South Africa today. That is why it is both surprising and predictable to hear people (even black people) speaking of a ‘free media’ in South Africa.

The proponents of ‘free media’ make the first assumption incorrectly – that South Africa is ‘free’ or that you can have a ‘free media’ in an unfree society. As black revolutionary, Assata Shakur once said, black people, the world over, have never known freedom – we can only imagine what it is like. But, on the other hand, white people – whose Human status and existence is legitimised by the subhumaness of blackness, are the epitomy of freedom. They can easily claim the title of a ‘free media’ because they know what freedom is.

In the context of the media, this translates to white people not only having hegemony in the ownership of major media companies in South Africa, but also having the hegemony on media language, narrative creation and cultural dominance. It is this freedom – which is only reserved for white people – which Bruce exercised when he called black people “idiots” and illiterates.

Media for white power

Media is a powerful tool for those in power. As the famous Marxist saying goes, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” and the media is the perfect space to disseminate those ideas. A 1988 text by two white intellectuals is quickly becoming as famous as the previous quote. The work on a “propaganda model” to explain the “behavior and performance in structural terms” of the media, by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman is again increasingly finding important expression from radical scholars, who are interested in deciphering the disparities in the South African media landscape.

From Herman, writing 15 years after the propaganda model was proposed, we can take the explanation that “the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); and they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment.” In the South African context, one sees such in media entities such as eNCA which is partly owned by billionaire, Johann Rupert, Media24 owned by Koos Bekker, and so-called ‘investigative unit’ Amabhungane, which receives generous funding from sources such as the Soros Foundation. These same funding sources, in turn, fund and constitute media ‘monitoring’ facilities like SANEF and the Freedom of Expression Institute.

The useful material from the white scholars above prove the fallacy of a media freedom. A media funded and supported by a white elite will inevitably serve the interests of that white elite – as demonstrated by the white owned media’s lack of coverage of white corruption.

As Steve Biko poignantly pointed out in the introduction of the black consciousness Black Community Programs (BCP) publication, Black Viewpoint, “a lot of us have forgotten that the values and attitudes of newspapers are governed largely by the values and attitudes of both their readership and of their financial supporters – who in the case of the white press in South Africa, are whites.” Biko goes further to say that “[t]herefore, when we read of a report of any speech or incident which focuses on blacks, we usually find it accompanied by interpretative connotations in terms of stress, headlines, quotations and other journalistic nuances, that are calculated to put the report in a particular setting for either consumption or rejection by the reader.”

Immediately after the SANEF case, it was excruciating, listening to a black woman, Mahlatse Gallens, who is the chairperson of SANEF, speaking at the stairs of the Johannesburg High Court after a white judge had just ruled against BLF – in their absence. Gallens was speaking passionately about the freedom of the press and how SANEF’s victory in court was a ‘victory for democracy and a free press’. I laughed (only to stop myself from crying) watching this sister, not because of the resounding faith she had in this idea of a ‘free’ press, constitutionalism and democracy, but at the utter disdain with which she (and other black journalists present) viewed BLF activists. Clad in all black, she said “media freedom” and I heard “media free-to lynch black people-dom”. Black on black violence. White power had won. Or rather, it was continuing with its mundane daily task of muzzling radical black voices – using other black people to do its dirty work.

Originally published on the Black Opinion website.

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