SA Elections: local media keep an open mind

To what extent should South African media impact on voters' decisions?

As votes are being tallied following yesterday's general elections in South Africa, a gruelling period comes to an end for the nation's media. The question can be asked to what extent the country's influential media houses impacted on the vote. How independent are they? In the run-up to the elections, the majority of the country's most influential newspapers chose not to endorse a particular political party.

The major Sunday papers, City Press, Sunday Times and The Sunday Independent all urged their readers to cast their ballots, because, staying away, they believe, would be a betrayal of our young democracy. None of them gave any instructions about which party readers should vote for.

The Mail&Guardian, which vies for the position of the most influential print medium in South Africa with City Press and Sunday Times, however, called upon readers to vote against the African National Congress (ANC) ‘to dilute overweening political power.’

It gave no clear instruction on which opposition party to vote for. The Afrikaans weekly, Rapport, also asked for an anti-ANC vote in its editorial. Is this a cop out? Are newspapers and media houses reneging on their role as watchdogs by failing to take a stand; or is non-partisan reporting what is required of media in a democracy? Social media platforms, digital offsets of election coverage like News24’s election app, and online forums like Daily Maverick were also abuzz with election activity, but no one clearly nailed their colours to the mast.

Having a pro-government mouthpiece almost goes without saying in many democracies

In many countries, the advantage of incumbency is linked to the ruling party’s control of state-owned media. Having a pro-government mouthpiece almost goes without saying in many democracies – let alone in places with tight media control, such as China. In many African countries it would be unthinkable not to have at least one major title clearly favouring the ruling party. Yet, in South Africa, as 25 million voters prepared to go to the polls with very few openly party-affiliated media, the quality and diversity of the print media served the democratic process. The structure and ownership of the media in South Africa have drawn criticism from the ruling ANC ever since the end of apartheid. Some have lamented the ‘white-owned media’ and its ‘unpatriotic’ stance towards government.

In 2010, the ANC supported the launch of The New Age, a national daily owned by the wealthy Gupta family. The paper was destined to provide the ‘good news’ of South Africa, and it certainly covers much government-related news. The appointment of some of the country's top editors – like former Die Burger editor Henry Jeffreys, who resigned in June 2011, and Moegsien Williams, the current editor – however, seems to have kept it from becoming purely a government mouthpiece. Apart from free airport handouts, distribution of the paper still seems problematic and it can’t, at this stage anyway, genuinely be described as an effective propaganda tool for the ANC. The regular ‘The New Age breakfasts,’ which often feature ANC politicians and are held in conjunction with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), are nevertheless a clever way to promote the ruling party and the government.

South African newspapers in general tend to reflect class, regional and language divisions, rather than party-political bias. However, can one really say that the man at the coffee shop reading the Sunday Times will vote for the Democratic Alliance (DA)? The country’s largest Sunday paper could very well also be read by the ANC voter. Or could you tell that the security guard paging through the Daily Sun, the Media24-owned tabloid, votes ANC? He could well be the supporter of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The person in the airport lounge paging through The New Age probably got it for free at the South African Airways counter, but it doesn’t mean he or she will vote for the ruling party.

The quality and diversity of the print media served the democratic process

In London, it would perhaps be unlikely that the loyal Guardian subscriber would vote for the Tories, or that the man displaying Le Figaro at a Parisian street café vote for the Socialist Party, but not here. In a country like Zimbabwe, a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporter is unlikely to be seen with a copy of The Herald, and for a long time in the heated pre-2008 years, reading the Daily News could have been seen as a provocation.

In its latest survey on the freedom of the press, Reporters Without Borders rates South Africa at 42 out of a total of 180 countries – not bad, given the potential threats to media freedom posed by the planned Protection of State Information Bill. The bill has led to extensive protest from the media and civil society, and is yet to be signed into law. In its 2013 index, Reporters Without Borders cited the bill as one of the main threats to press freedom in South Africa.

For now, voters in South Africa are benefiting from a reprieve – but this could change. A number of factors are to be taken into account. Firstly, the attempt to prevent journalists from accessing information, investigative reporters especially, may intensify in the years to come and lead to a closing up of the political space. So far, civil society organisations have managed to keep the pressure on to ensure that this doesn't happen.

Secondly, newspapers, as high quality and informative as their reporting may be, do not have the same influence on the general voting public as other media. One could argue that if newspapers were really that influential, certain issues, like corruption, would probably play a much larger role in the elections. Opinion polls show that even though opposition parties hammered on about the scandal around President Jacob Zuma's R246 million homestead at Nkandla, the ANC has managed to downplay it through their own communications strategies: at rallies, via door-to-door campaigning and by preventing Zuma from taking part in any televised debates with the leaders of the opposition parties.

Most newspapers, led by the Mail&Guardian, kept the Nkandla story on their front page week after week – but with little result, it seems. Studies of reporting on the elections, as the one by Media Monitoring Africa, also indicate that corruption was ‘over-reported’ compared to other issues in the run-up to the polls. Yet, the ANC is expected to lose only a few percentage points compared to its 2009 score of 64%.

In a press conference on the eve of the elections, Zuma also blamed the media for what he called inaccurate reporting on Nkandla – an issue which, according to him, wasn’t important to voters.

Finally, even greater control of the SABC, with its dominant free-to-air television channels and a myriad of radio stations in all official languages, will be a great advantage to the ruling party. During election time, electronic media are bound by the regulations of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to provide equitable coverage to all parties, according to size – but this changes in non-election periods. The ruling party can now also rely on some support from another ‘good news,’ Gupta-owned media outlet – the ANN7 news channel.

South Africans love to debate and almost every other radio station devotes hours to phone-in debates – be it privately owned stations like Primedia's 702 and Cape Talk, SABC radio talk shows or community radio stations. These programmes are relatively uncensored and are another example of real post-1994 democratic freedom of speech.

The ANC has been largely successful in communicating its message in these elections. But it might not always be the case, and there will certainly be those within the party who will blame the ‘biased’ or ‘anti-government’ media when things don’t go their way. The need for a government mouthpiece is likely to be an issue again in future. Reports of a more powerful communications team in government, led by presidential spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, are therefore worrying. According to the Mail&Guardian, the aim of the planned new information ministry is to manage Zuma’s image and push through ANC propaganda. If this happens, it could mean open confrontation between the government and the mainstream media, which have been playing fair up to now.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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