The backdrop to the ANC's media policy proposals is a sense of embattlement – the party feels under siege from a hostile media, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. Most of the proposals are benign, but there is a worrying call for the possibility of a media tribunal to be investigated.

Anton Harber writes in his column in Business Day:

THE tone of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) new media policy proposals, to be discussed at the party’s national conference in Polokwane in December , is captured by the document’s title: Communications and the battle of ideas.

The document, which emerged from the recent policy conference, is shaped by the view that “the ANC is faced with a major ideological offensive, largely driven by the opposition and individuals in the mainstream media”.

This feeling of embattlement informs the document, and is in danger of infesting the whole of SA’s vibrant media setup. The criticism the government faces, the document suggests, is beyond normal debate because it is an “offensive against our movement” and one part of a bigger “global offensive against progressive values and ideas”.

The ANC’s outlook and values (defined in the struggle terms of the 1980s, in phrases such as collective rights, values of caring and community solidarity and a developmental state) has to weigh in against “the mainstream media’s ideological outlook” (defined as neoliberalism, market fundamentalism and a weak and passive state). This suggests, rather simplistically, that the ANC’s ideals remain pristine despite more than a decade of access to wealth and power, and the private media presents a single, unified block of opposition to the transformation project. Neither of these notions hold up to scrutiny.

More worrying, this kind of thinking does not discriminate between acceptable criticism, discussion and debate, and the actions of the country’s enemies (whoever they are). It lumps everyone together in a lazy, sloppy and potentially dangerous way. The party’s critics are at one with the country’s enemies. The real threat to media freedom, they suggest, is not the state but commercial interests and “the pursuit of profit”, which are “impacting negatively on editorial quality”. In particular, they bemoan the “increasing concentration of ownership, control and content” in a small number of powerful companies.

THE proposals to deal with this are by and large positive and benign, involving measures to boost media diversity and encourage community-based media. They propose strengthening government communications, encouraging the creation of progressive media houses, taking practical steps to influence and engage the output of the creating, media, academic and intellectual communities, giving more support to community media, and working with editors to improve journalistic skills.

On the SABC, the document raises the fact that previous party resolutions on the funding of the public broadcaster have not been implemented. The ANC reiterates its call for more public funding to free the SABC from its commercial constraints.

The ANC seeks a media that promotes national consensus, pride and unity and deepens democracy. As you might expect from a ruling party that has felt the sting of close media scrutiny in recent months, words such as “watchdog” are absent. The sting in the document comes in one line, calling for an investigation into “the need or otherwise for a media tribunal”, which would address the weakness of the media’s self-regulatory system and the need to protect the rights of all South Africans. This joins recent angry protests that freedom of expression rights are trumping individual rights, such as privacy and dignity.

The nature of this intended tribunal is not clear in the document. Is it to be an ANC tribunal, a government tribunal, or an independent one? What will be its power and scope? The South African media certainly knows about commissions of inquiry into the media that purport to be independent, having faced a series of them under apartheid, all of which were designed to put pressure on the media and encourage journalists to fall into line to encourage more unity, national pride and consensus.

The ANC document seems torn between a gentle approach based on “progressive forces … contesting the space and the public discourse more broadly” and those who want to intervene more aggressively through a tribunal. As this document translates into conference resolutions, we shall see which view gains precedence.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. The ANC’s media policy proposals are the subject of a colloquium to be held at Wits on October 24. For details, click here.