The good news from South Africa

The nation's vibrant media is seemingly united against a new information law that would curtail freedoms.

    The good news from South Africa
    South Africa's media often runs hard-hitting, investigative stories [Al Jazeera]

    In his book of recollections of surviving in South Africa's notorious bastille on Robben Island, former inmate Idres Naidoo, whom I once interviewed, wrote of how the prisoners of apartheid were not only abused by their guards but attacked from the sky.

    He describes how the island's seagulls would routinely defecate as they flew over the heads of the convicts. Sometimes their droppings fell into the metal bowls used for the lousy food that the comrades, as they called themselves, were forced to eat. When that happened, the guards told the men they should consider themselves lucky because the bird excrement would add spice to the gruel they were given.

    Years later, the whole world was dumping on South Africa over apartheid. And today, in the post Mandela-Mbeki era, it seems like everyone is doing likewise upon the government for enabling corruption, poor economic management and poor service delivery.

     South African youth 18 years after apartheid

    Never mind that, for millions, life is vastly improved - but the negatives and the unfinished business tends to drown out the positives and the country's many achievements.

    One of those achievements is the survival of a press that was suppressed under apartheid - and may be again if a proposed new information law goes into effect. Only this time, the press is united against it and the public is supportive of campaigns against censorship.

    Hope remains

    The European Journalism Center carried a report that was hopeful: "Nearly half of South Africans believe proposed secrecy laws would curtail media freedom and make it easier for government officials to hide corruption - while just 13 per cent disagree, a survey has found. The research group Ipsos discovered widespread concern about the African National Congress' protection of state information bill, which has been branded a 'secrecy bill' by activists, journalists and writers locally and abroad."

    Part of the reason for the willingness of a public that voted the ANC into power to stand up against it so forcefully is the role the press plays as a watchdog on power.

    Unlike many countries, where newspapers are losing influence to TV and digital media, the newspapers here are leaders, however flawed, in investigative reporting, offering diverse commentary and telling it like it is - even if the newspaper world is battling for survival. The independent newspapers here may soon be up for sale by their European owners.

    In contrast to most of the TV I have seen elsewhere, here, E-TV or the public broadcaster SABC does run occasional strong documentaries and hard-hitting stories. Most newscasts I have seen seem pedestrian with little context. There are probably more investigations on MNET's newsmagazine, the Carte Blanche show, which is often more consumer oriented.

    Role models

    Newspapers such as the Sunday Times and the Sowetan, the country's largest paper, do run impressive investigations, often embarrassing the government. A host of columnists, mostly black, are fearless in blasting the private sector and the government for many lapses.

    In a class of its own, as it has been for years, is the former Weekly Mail, now the Mail & Guardian since its partnership with the Guardian newspaper in London. It is now a weekly with a strong web presence that puts so many weekly newspapers such as The Village Voice In New York City to shame. The Boston Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay Guardian are much better, but not as well-written and newsy as the Mail & Guardian. Along with some other titles, it played a heroic role during the apartheid years, challenging the system with verve and style.

    Thanks to Irwin Manoim, Anton Harber, and their teams of dedicated and gusty journalists, they helped force the world to pay attention to the South African story with a courage that was sometimes met with crackdowns and prosecutions when the apartheid state imposed a state of emergency.

    When Harber retired after 14 years, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at his farewell, saying: "I want to pay a very warm tribute to Anton Harber … It would be common cause to say he has gone on to be an outstanding innovative and courageous journalist producing a newspaper held in very high regard round the world for its independence and fearless speaking of the truth without fear or favour." Harber now teaches journalism and writes weekly for Business Day.

    Today, the Mail & Guardian is no longer "alternative" but competitive with any mainstream product, a blend of local national and international news, features about South Africans and their issues, whistle-blowing and editorialising, not to mention business news, sports and entertainment coverage. It also features the Guardian's outstanding international reporting.

    Political culture

    Harber believes a newspaper's greatest sin is "dullness", adding: "There is some good and plenty of bad journalism in this country, but I think the M&G still produces some of the best. There is fierce competition in this corporate environment today and we don't have a lot of older experienced journalists as a backbone.

    "There is a more competitive atmosphere, not only in South Africa but [also] globally. The M&G started without any financial help. It had to mature into a self-sustaining product, and it did. But there is always a fine balance to be found between the demands of journalism and the demands of newspaper economics. In many places the battle is being lost, but I hope that's not the case here."

    The paper adds to, and supports, a dynamic political culture in South Africa that includes arts, books and films. The most recent issue profiles the Durban International Film Festival, one of the best in the world, with a showcase of what a prolific local film industry produces. This year, that includes some 16 features, 19 documentaries and 27 short films, as well as films from around the world. One of my films, In Debt We Trust, was shown there a few years back. I will be going this year as a film fan.

    The pity is most of us in the US have no clue about what's happening here. Sunday Times columnist and novelist Fred Khumalo just returned from a year at Harvard. He writes: "No-one knew of the Sunday Times, no-one ever heard of the books I'd written, few people knew where Johannesburg was. To many Johannesburg was quite interchangeable with Lagos. Africa, after all, is, to many Americans, one massive country."

    US media can learn a great deal from South African media, although there are informative sources of Africa News on, Global Information Network, and online in South Africa at Pambazuka and The Thinker.

    As a "news dissector" who often spends too much of his time defecaing like those Robben Island seagulls upon the complicity, and commercialism of our media-ocracy, I am pleased to have a chance to delve more deeply into what's happening here on the media scene. The good news for folks in other countries is that you can now access the best of it online.

    News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at His latest books are Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street and Blogothon (Cosimo Books). He also hosts a programme on Progressive Radio Network.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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