Menu Close

The politics of journalism in South Africa

Share This Article:

Picture: Reuters – Since the election of Zuma in 2009, there appears to have been a shift in media reporting, towards surreptitiously antagonistic coverage in the contrasting reporting of the former and current president, the writer says.

By Fuzile Jwara

In recent weeks, a journalist appeared in court for private prosecution by former president Jacob Zuma.

Why would former President Zuma take this course of action and what precedent does it set for political journalists?

The case illustrates the threatened state of journalism within the broader South African political context. No one can deny that South African political journalists have long exhibited bias, at times fuelling factionalism in party politics.

I wholeheartedly support freedom of speech and journalistic freedoms. The existence of the media is an essential part of South African democracy.

But my critique of journalism stems mostly from frustration that, since the election of Zuma in 2009, there appears to have been a shift in media reporting, towards surreptitiously antagonistic coverage in the contrasting reporting of the former and current president. Many journalists, particularly those who report on politics, align themselves with Cyril Ramaphosa’s wing of the ruling party. A central point of my argument is that political journalists in South Africa appear to be perpetuating journalistic bias.

Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi alluded to the role of media coverage in perpetuating factionalism when he delivered the Percy Qoboza Memorial Lecture in Tshwane. In his critique, he acknowledged the importance of media in holding the state accountable.

However, there are journalists who have embedded themselves in the ruling party’s internal politics and leadership contestation. In the lecture, the Premier mentioned the current partisan rivalry between News24 and Independent Media.

My support of journalistic freedom does not mean that I cannot criticise the overtly biased political coverage within our media. This bias is also observable in the reporting of other important issues in South Africa.

On the one hand, when the Steinhoff story first broke, it was carefully labelled as “financial mismanagement” and my absolute favourite phrase an “accounting error”, according to an eNCA article on December 8, 2017. Interestingly, the same phrases would make a timely return in the initial reporting of the alleged Tongaat-Hulett corruption and fraud scandal. As exemplified by the February 10, 2022, Business Day article title of the sugar producer story as an “accounting scandal”.

On the other hand, any suspected irregular expenditure in the public sector is correctly labelled as “possible corruption and fraud”. In this instance, one could argue that mainstream media problematises certain acts of corruption from one group over another.

This is problematic as the public sector is predominantly administered by black people (including Indian and coloured people). Therefore, from my perspective, it appears corruption is racialised in reporting to perpetuate a negative depiction of black people.

What vexes me the most about the media reporting of corruption is that corruption statistics refute this narrative that the public sector is the more morally depraved wing of our existing sectors. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index report of 2021, the South African public sector ranked 70th least corrupt in the world out of 180 countries.

Meanwhile, according to the 2020 PwC Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey, our beloved private sector is ranked as the 2nd most corrupt in the world. During the 2010s, South Africa ranked 1st in the same PwC report. Clearly, we have corruption in this country, but it appears to not fit the narrative of where the fraud and illegal economic criminal activities occur.

Needless to say, our journalists uncover really important stories and expose wrongdoings in the public sector as it is financed through taxes. Nonetheless, billions of rands in civil servants’ pension funds went down the drain in the Steinhoff and Tongaat-Hulett corruption scandals, where the Public Investment Corporation had invested substantial amounts of money. Moreover, journalists have always proclaimed their impartiality when reporting on stories.

In this regard, the South African Constitution protects the right to free speech, which means the media can report without fear and intimidation from the state. Additionally, the Code of Ethics and conduct for South African print and online media preamble clearly stipulates: “As journalists we commit ourselves to the highest standards, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the public. This means always striving for truth, avoiding unnecessary harm, reflecting a multiplicity of voices in our coverage of events.” As such, it is the duty of journalists to report truthfully and objectively.

We cannot understate the power of the media, as it was a catalyst in the #ZumaMustFall protests that contributed to the eventual resignation of the former president from office. It is imperative that journalists uphold journalistic integrity. At this point, it appears that the reports by News24 uncovering that Independent Media have plans to oust President Ramaphosa are essentially deflecting from the shortcomings of the incumbent president. Is the president above any form of scrutiny? If not, then perhaps Independent Media is being scapegoated for the very partisan state of our journalism. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as the saying goes.

In the same way Zuma was criticised, the current president Ramaphosa should receive the same scrutiny, for not delivering and for his own scandals of which Phala Phala is only the most recent. The media24 journalist and the prosecutor may not have broken the law, the court shall duly decide on this matter.

It is a great disservice to the people of this country when journalists embroil themselves in factional politics and undercutting the issue of corruption in South Africa to only one sector. In hindsight, media is an industry, journalists are people capable of bias and prejudice.

This critical analysis of journalistic discrepancies and bias remind me of a quote by the iconic Malcolm X: “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power.”

In no way, am I pleading the innocence of one over the other. Rather, I argue that media scrutiny needs to be more balanced in covering important issues in South Africa, corruption being one such challenge.

Fuzile Jwara is a Postgraduate student at the University of Johannesburg, Department of Sociology.

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.