Out of the mire, a banal but chilling proposition starts to emerge – that we decide on the innocence or guilt of a plaintiff according to whether we like them or not. Legality, our conviction in the rights and wrongs of the matter, trails our desires (whether the reverse would be preferable is not clear). Whenever I read biographies of Plath, I always have the suspicion that someone or other is being criminalised simply for being who they were.
Suddenly there is a lot of (artificially whipped-up) hysteria about the media doing the rounds amongst certain politicians. They want to muzzle the media by introducing a Media Tribunal “with teeth” and are also hell bent on passing the Protection of Information Bill which will criminalize much of what goes for investigative journalism in this country.
When these politicians (who pretend to be hysterical about media “excesses” and “mistakes”) refer to the media, they usually mean those sectors of the printed media who sometimes carry articles that contain allegations of corruption, tender rigging, high-handed and heartless incompetence by politicians and senior officials, the wasting of tax payers money by Ministers who stay in 5 star hotels for 6 months because they are not happy with the bed in their official residence, the fathering of children out of wedlock by our President or articles that do not seem to endorse the National Democratic Revolution as interpreted by Julius Malema and his woodwork buddies.
They do not usually refer to the tabloids (who are now more widely read than the so called “serious” newspapers). This is of course because tabloids seldom report on the alleged work done by politicians, but often print stories about “moffies” who tricked men into having sex with them by wearing dresses and were then stabbed in the gat, church ministers who had allegedly raped congregants, women who allegedly tricked men into buying them expensive presents before running off with their best friends, alleged drug dealers who are terrorizing communities, tik addicts who had sold their mothers gold teeth to buy some drugs and gentlemen of a certain age who allegedly molested young boys.
Some of these stories in the tabloids are published on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence and often reek of bigotry, sexism, homophobia and other attitudes and values not in line with our Constitution. These tabloids sometimes indulge in the most unprofessional and destructive journalism, but as far as I know, not one politician has attacked the journalism practices by these tabloids – although the stories in the tabloids often destroy the lives and reputations of ordinary (often working class or poor) people on the basis of very shoddy journalism.
But because tabloids seldom report negatively on politicians or on party politics at all, they are never mentioned when politicians talk about the need for a media tribunal and the “excesses” and “mistakes” of the media. (Strangely they also do not refer to incidences where the SABC news had failed to report accurately on the booing of a Minister or had wrongly implicated a DA member in some wrongdoing – must have slipped their minds.)
If proof were necessary, this is proof enough that this absurd talk about how evil the media is and how it needs to be regulated for the sake of our democracy has absolutely nothing to do with any principle and everything to do with the most blatant and dangerous forms of self-interest on the part of some politicians. It is a bit like saying we need to stop people eating because they are starving. For the sake of our democracy we need more information and less regulation – not the other way around. Do not believe a word of this talk that the media is the greatest threat to our democracy. We all know that the greatest threat to our democracy is posed by the politicians and senior officials who are stealing our money and failing to address the poverty and vast discrepancies in wealth between rich and poor.
But hey, some people will believe almost anything. So the politicians are trying their luck in the hope that enough of us voters will be so stupid and lazy that we will believe their stories about the evils of the media and that we will not see through their hypocrisy. After all, how many members of the elite really cares if a working class gay man’s life is destroyed by a bigoted and untrue report in a tabloid that he is a child molester? That guy is just an ordinary person, does not drive in a BMW, never stays in the Mount Nelson, has no bodyguards, must do with the bed that was bought 30 years ago, and earns less in a month than the average Minister spends on one dinner party.
When the politicians talk about the need for the media to respect the dignity and privacy of people, they mean that they want the media not to report on scandalous and embarrassing behavior of politicians – even if it is true and in the public interest to do so. The politicians obviously do not care about the dignity and privacy of anyone reading a tabloid or anyone being reported on in a tabloid.
The hypocrisy inherent in these attacks on the “serious” media is therefore breathtaking. Politicians who look like plucked, boiled, turkeys are pretending to be proud, plumed, peacocks.
Of course the media sometimes get it wrong. They make mistakes, they have a tendency to get hysterical and see everything as a constitutional crisis or the end of the world as we know it, they can be sensationalistic and have the tendency to adhere to the motto: “when it bleeds it leads”. If they make mistakes they need to correct this, must apologise and in the most extreme cases must pay damages for defamation.
Some politicians say that the present legal avenues for redress are too expensive and cumbersome and that is why one needs a fast, cheap and efficient mechanism like a Media Tribunal to hold the media to account. Of course this can be said of almost any legal mechanisms to redress harm. At present it is rather expensive to prosecute corruption, so why don’t we just appoint a corruption tribunal to deal with the charges of corruption against President Zuma and dispense with this innocent until proven guilty stuff? Not going to happen, is it?
If the politicians were principled (I know this phrase might sound hilarious and unreal, but I am trying to keep a straight face while typing these words) and were not acting out of naked self-interest and greed, they would have insisted on other tribunals to deal with other excesses and mistakes in our society – most notably the excesses, mistakes and illegal behavior of politicians and senior officials.
It is very difficult to get a politician or a senior official to admit to a mistake and even more difficult to get that politician to correct the mistake. The difference is, of course, that while media reporting can arguably affect the dignity and reputation (if any) of one or two politicians or officials, the corruption, greed, laziness and sheer callousness of politicians and senior officials affect the lives of millions of South Africans. When politicians and officials do not do what we pay them to do, people go hungry, people become homeless, people get sick and die.
We can vote out the politicians, of course (just as we can decide not to buy a newspaper), but by the time the politicians have been kicked out, well 300 000 people might have died of Aids related illnesses or a hundred babies might have died because of a lack of hygiene in our hospitals. Yet the people responsible for these outrages are never going to be brought before any tribunal, are never going to be punished and, in all likelihood, will be given a promotion or at worst a pension for life.
So, please, before politicians start talking about the need for a Media Tribunal – as if this is the most important thing for our democracy – they should clamor for the institution of a Tribunal for politicians and officials where ordinary citizens could go to get these people fired and maybe thrown in jail when they fail us. I propose that such a tribunal should be staffed or appointed by members of the print media (as the ANC is proposing the Media Tribunal be staffed or appointed by members of Parliament). That should ensure that it is independent and impartial!
Now imagine anyone actually seriously making such a suggestion. Imagine the howls of protests from politicians and officials. Now see how these same politicians want to impose on others what they will never accept for themselves and smell, yes smell, the stinking rot of corruption and greed and know that this talk of a Media Tribunal is no more than the hypocritical maneuverings of an elite wanting to protect themselves from being exposed as heartless, greedy and out of touch with the needs of the people they claim to love and profess to want to serve.
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