MEDIA STATEMENT BY THE
INKATHA FREEDOM PARTY
Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Whether they like it or not, in South Africa, the mass media and the political opposition are sailing in one boat. The function they share is oversight of a one-party government that, by virtue of its increasing size, has extended its tentacles into every sphere of our public life. Given the one rather overcrowded boat, the question I often ask myself is whether we, as parliamentary opposition, and the media are at least paddling in the same direction.
Government, it is true, has the responsibility to ensure the conditions for an independent and pluralistic media landscape. Government is similarly bound by the imperatives of constitutional democracy and political culture to ensure sufficient space for political discourse with opposition. These are the ground rules. It is up to us, the opposition, and the media, as to what we make of it in Parliament, in the press, on the airwaves and in cyberspace.
I, for one, have always argued that our vested interest in society and our debt to the public for their interest in us makes us interdependent. Our shared role can only be enhanced if we work together. It is therefore essential how we, on the opposition benches, relate to the media and how the media relate to us. By constraining us, the media may not only threaten their own credibility, but also limit their own space for legitimate criticism of government for when they may need it.
Democracy, on the whole, has given the three-way relationship between government, opposition and the media a new, welcome dynamic. The relationship between government and the media has improved vastly. There is none of the nasty paternalistic censorship, brutal repression of media professionals and refusal to disclose public information we remember from the apartheid days.
Sadly, the same cannot always be said of the relationship between government and its political opponents. The incumbent administration notably lives in denial of such gigantic realities as the HIV/Aids pandemic, crime and corruption and it naturally resents being reminded of them by the political opposition. To be more precise, what the government resents most is being reminded by what it sees as small and insignificant opposition.
The mass media, perhaps unwittingly, perpetuate this inherent proportionality in their reporting. By convention, the ruling party is allocated 70+ percent of media space, it consequently receives 70+ percent of public attention and ultimately monopolises 70+ percent of the truth. The real truth that political and particularly moral issues cannot be fractionalised is seemingly no defence against thinking in terms of zero sums.
To be fair, I must mention that the South African media worked hard towards our democratic dispensation. I remember how effectively the press echoed the lone but powerful voice of Helen Suzman during her stint as the sole opposition representative in Parliament. Today the media perhaps feel they need a break. As a result, they are labouring under self-censorship, fearful of disrupting a fragile consensus they helped to create. This attitude has, in turn, helped cement government policies that are arguable at least and downright damaging at most.
As an avowed believer in laissez faire, I contend that the embedded proportionality practiced by our mass media will be challenged not through regulation, but by market forces and technological advances. I will refer to two examples: television and the internet. Television in South Africa, for one, has since its late inception somewhat broadened and improved our political discourse. Television is a truly democratic medium, most people enjoy it: literacy and wealth are no barrier.
The main concern with television as a mode of political communication is whether the views represented on the news reflect a broad range of society or a limited set of vested interests. The limited range of information currently on offer in South Africa constantly raises concerns about the breadth of views reflected and the fairness of journalistic coverage. It is both technology and accessibility that constitute limits to broader television coverage of politics in this country.
The increasing prosperity and deregulation of the telecommunications industry worldwide has allowed the creation of an extensive cable network. Today nearly every community in the United States is served by cable television. The average American community now receives 30 channels of television which present viewpoints of every imaginable aspect of American society.
As the opportunity to communicate has expanded, so too has the amount of public discourse on television. With an expanded number of outlets, there are now greater opportunities for political leaders, national, provincial and local, to present the case for many different public policies and ideologies. In the United States, cable television has been the venue for debates over issues varying from national health care to the size of the federal budget.
Perhaps most importantly, cable television has allowed people to participate in political debates and have a more immediate impact on public decision-making. Cable television has also seen the emergence of a new sort of programming, the so-called ‘town meeting’, which brings together Americans from all walks of life to discuss important issues, sometimes directly with the president of the United States.
Similarly, the internet has changed public discourse worldwide, albeit in more subtle ways than television. It has revolutionised even South African journalism: reporters now have unparalleled access to government documents and databases, public and private libraries, and archives of newspapers and other publications. As access to the internet grows, I have no doubt that as a new political generation comes on-line, this medium will rise and probably surpass television as a major means of political communication, since it gives the public an even greater opportunity to talk back.
All media change constantly as technologies of electronic communication and standard of living, which makes them more widely available, improve. And as the technologies of communication improve, so, inevitably, do the workings of democracy.
The independent and pluralistic political and media landscape, which is a joint prerequisite for democracy and which the government, the mass media and we in the opposition so ostensibly strive for, can no longer be guaranteed by a government with a 70 percent majority, occupying 70+ percent of the public space. However, it can and I believe it will be redeemed by technological advances with a lot of help from free market forces.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP