SABC controversial COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng recently stated that SABC broadcast news, on television or on radio, will no longer represent protest action where property is damaged (the majority of protest action has “service delivery” and dissent with the incumbent government as its heart: Duncan 2014; Lancaster 2014). This, he states, is to prevent other protestors from doing the same thing – seeing or hearing protest action may encourage further damage to property, and Hlaudi says violence should not be encouraged as the way to seek negotiations. Hlaudi’s comments are strongly rooted in the 1950’s era of media effects theories: the hypodermic needle theory whereby audiences are zombies and beholden to an all-powerful media. Any of my first year students at UCT would be able to tell you that we don’t think like this any more. Perhaps the CEO of South Africa’s state broadcaster would do well to read up on some media and psycho-analytical theory.
But this isn’t just about censorship. In South Africa, as I have written about previously, the digital divide, the role of the media, and politics is hopelessly intertwined moreso than in developed nations. The South African Broadcasting Corporation is the only broadcaster that is able to thoroughly penetrate rural locales – which means that rural people in South Africa often only have this one source of political information. While this is changing (the access to print media, cheaper internet costs, widespread connectivity in rural areas), and the reliance on nano- or non-media complicates matters too, the SABC still has monopoly over the airwaves (in both radio and television).
The SABC is also the state broadcaster. It is widely known (Anglin 1995: 539; Silke & Schrirer 1994: 141; Jacobs 2003: 42; Nyamnjoh 2005: 54; Hubbard 2010: 5) that under apartheid, the SABC was “his master’s voice” and the mouthpiece of the incumbent National Party. Even after a period of rapid transformation and restructuring, the state broadcaster has once again slipped into its old comfortable slippers, following the incumbent government around. The challenges of freedom of expression, criticism, and of the media in South Africa in general are well documented (Jacobs 1999: 154; Berger 2002: 2-3; Zegeye & Harris 2003: 12; Strom 2007). With increasing government influence and funding crises, the SABC is under pressure to tow the party line. Censoring protest action on the airwaves will have one of two very real, very scary, consequences.
Consequences of censorship
One: it will create a false sense of optimism in a crisis. Journalists, too scared to promote the public interest, will instead slip into a Sunshine Journalism role – which is development / peace journalism on steroids. Sunshine Journalism, Kuper and Kuper suggest, “amplifies the extent of social cohesion and development” (2001:357) and Barrett (2006) concurs, suggesting that the traditional “Fourth Estate” form of journalism is now giving way to more optimistic, soft news reporting. While some suggest that favouring positive aspects in reporting South Africa may balance the previously negative representations of Africa in Western public opinion (Versfeld, Kruger & Smith 1996; Thompson 2006: 24; Saidykhan 2011), Sunshine Journalism is essentially a ‘false positive’ and not without faults. Kuper and Kuper argue that if journalists focus on positive news at the expense of the negative, “people are presented with a perspective that falsifies their daily realities and wider experiences, thus bringing about a sense of desperation and alienation in another way” (2001:358). Pre-democracy, and especially during the “crisis” years of the 1980s, the Afrikaans press evolved into Sunshine Journalism, which resulted in a skewed image of repression in Southern Africa (Tomaselli, Tomaselli, Muller 1987: 97). During the state of emergency in 1985, Rapport continued as if there was nothing wrong in South Africa that “a better ‘media image’ couldn’t put right, [thus] blaming all of South Africa’s ills on communists, agitators, and misinformed international opinion” (ibid). Hlaudi’s comments recently are eerily similar to this pre-democracy approach to media censorship and control (See Bird and Garda 1996).
Two: the censorship on the SABC broadcast media has a dreadful impact for an informed electorate. As we know, the role of the media in political communication is important (Louw 2005; McNair 2009; Bennett 2009), and the majority of South Africans get their political information from either radio or television (Malila 2014). What does the SABC’s monopoly in the rural/impoverished areas mean for media plurality? To understand this, one must understand that the SABC is still government controlled (De Vos 2012).
If a rural electorate only has access to the 18 SABC radio channels and the three SABC television channels, then media plurality does not technically exist. This single channel of political communication is a key problem in South Africa. Until recently (thanks to South Africa’s satellite provider DSTV’s cheap television options and increased mobile media penetration), the poor communities only had one or two options for political communication: read the small-circulation regional newspaper or listen to the broadcast media (mostly owned by the SABC). Media plurality and transformation in South Africa often occurs at a snails-pace, and this censorship of protest action limits political information even further.
Structure of the divide
South Africa is also divided along class and economic as well as racial lines. The rural communities are often the poorest and least educated (Spaull 2013:21) and almost exclusively black. The urban areas are more diverse: while still predominantly black, these communities are black, poor, and live in urban townships; black and middle class; or white and middle to upper class (Census 2011). These urban dwellers have more access to media plurality because of their racial/economic diversity and supposed wealth. More radio and television channels are accessible and a diverse range of newspaper and magazines cater for this urban mix. The notion of a homogenous consumer or voting “public” is problematic in South Africa, given its history, Wasserman (2014) posits:
The public in South Africa is fragmented, unequal and do not all have the same access to the media. Moreover, the mainstream, commercial media that dominate the public sphere tend to represent a very narrow sliver of the South African citizenry, an elite that is attractive to advertisers and can afford access to their offerings.
A key tenet of liberal democracy is that citizens should be informed when voting – their choice of candidates or parties should be based on rational and critical decisions using all available information to compare and contrast. In order to make a rational decision, political education is needed, and the media plays a significant role in this. A diversity of media outlets or channels widens democracy simply because the choice between ideologies and agendas increases views and voices for the populous. Competition between angles and voices presumably ensures a multitude of information sources. With the rural population existing on a political communication diet lacking in plurality (having access only to the SABC for example), democratic choices and informed participation weakens.
With censorship of protest action on the rural populous’ only significant outlet of political communication, their informed choice is severely hampered. Media plurality, media freedom and responsibility, media ethics, and fair coverage of political parties is key to an informed electorate in South Africa. Hlaudi’s comments are disconcerting.
Instead of banning coverage of property damage, consider re-framing the way journalists approach this coverage. Too often, as Wasserman notes in 2014, the media in South Africa is angled “top down”: that is, with the state at the top, and the media reflecting the state’s interests to the public. Only non-mainstream media such as GroundUp or, more recently the Daily Vox offer some true lateral / horizonal linkages between communities. Perhaps the SABC could look at their framing narratives to improve communication.
As Lancaster argued in 2015, “Media reports do not paint a complete picture and have their natural biases toward protests occurring in metropolitan areas and those that are more violent, rather than showing peaceful ones”. The framing of political and dissent protests are under-represented by the media in South Africa. This is well known and well documented. The way around this is NOT to censor the media even further, but to add to the narratives and framing.
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