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by Kavish Chetty / 05.01.2011

Political journalism (and journalism more generally) has been in a perpetual state of crisis post-1994. Sometimes the shape and contour of this crisis becomes more obvious – conspiratorial talks of media tribunals by the ruling party; a contra-democratic ‘Protection of Information’ bill – but more often, it simply seethes beneath the surface, always threatened, threatening. I say post-1994 not to vindicate Apartheid media; it’s only once democracy becomes available, and the media is seen as instrumental beyond its function as governmental mouthpiece, as a prosthesis for autocracy, that the real problems of what an accurate, balanced, diverse media actually mean become apparent.

Journalism’s most recent friction has been the conflict between accountability and freedom. Both are vital aspects of any functioning media in a democracy. There are two opposing sides here. In the right corner, we have the ANC, a gang of vestigial revolutionaries who accuse the media of entrenching neoliberal economic policies (have they forgot how integral they were themselves in maintaining this country’s economic system? How they refused to prosecute big business for its role in buttressing apartheid during the Truth and Reconciliation process?) and hampering that ever-elusive goal, transformation. They still see themselves as a kind of messianic force of change, although they shed that skin sixteen years ago and largely succumbed to every materialist affectation in the book – Blade Nzimande (sorry, ‘Dr’ Blade Nzimande) is still the classic exemplar of why humans and communism don’t work, with his fancy R1 million BMW, and his hotel bills at the Mount Nelson. If the ANC still see themselves as the revolutionary current in the country, rather than the status quo, then it’s easy to see why every attempt by the media to point out excess, corruption, fraud and failed promises is reinterpreted as a kind of counter-democratic strategy by the spectres of Apartheid.

In the left corner, the media, bruised and by no means untainted by guilt. One of their greatest challenges, mirroring transformation challenges throughout South Africa, has been to diversify, move beyond old racial structures, without the cost of skill and experience. Whilst personnel changes over the last decade and a half have demonstrated a commitment to introducing black candidates (gender is a less successful story), the media are still accused of maintaining ‘white liberal’ culture, and thus serving narrow political and financial interests. A popular anecdote has ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe saying, when asked by a black journalist about the singing of the liberation song with the chorus ‘Kill the Boer’, “I call that a coconut approach, where you have a black face but your interest is white.”

Even plagued by several other issues: concentration of ownership, dominance of commercialism, limited access – our media has proved a resilient watchdog, and tribute to this is paid in Jacana’s new compendium, Troublemakers. Together with a brilliant introduction by Anton Harber which illuminates all the contemporary troubles of national journalism, the book collects several paragons of investigative journalism, all finalists for the prestigious Taco Kuiper journalism prize. The book contains 19 stories, ranging from South Africa’s biggest ever fraud (“and we’ve had some big ones,” the book cheekily reminds us) to the ‘prosecuting chief who plagiarised to get the president off the hook’ to expositions on Zimbabwean prisons. A collection of penetrative writing showcasing some of the country’s most accomplished journalists, it’s a potent reminder of what journalism is capable of achieving when employed correctly. And the range of subjects handled demonstrates that media tribunals and Protection of Information bills would only serve to impoverish the democratic process.

(the award also takes into account digital entries, and the book contains a DVD containing documentary finalists)

Kavish Chetty

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