Media retort to ANCYL not wholly convincing

Setumo Stone asks why the South African public should trust the press

The media derives its powers from the constitution and if such power could land in the hands of unsavory characters, then the whole constitutional democracy would be at risk. From this perspective, common citizens should be concerned if and when the Fourth Estate exhibits a propensity to curtail debate on its credibility. It is not my view that the media is currently doing such, save to say that certain reactions towards the ANCYL's campaign to ‘expose corrupt journalists' have not been entirely convincing.

Whereas the merits and demerits of this particular case are not the subject of this piece, a certain pattern emanates from what already exists in the public realm: (i) the media has a right not to divulge its sources of information but the ANCYL does not, and (ii) the media has no obligation to report suspected criminal misconduct to the relevant authorities but the ANCYL does.

Under these conditions, we - the public - are left in limbo around ‘the substance of the matter'. In the end, the only available choice we have is to either doubt the integrity of the ANCYL or that of the media. But it is worth noting that a lack of integrity on the part of the ANCYL would pose little or no constitutional hazard since they do not wield any legislated constitutional power. Their constituency could simply eject them - democratically - out of office if and when such a need may arise. How then are we to deal with the integrity of the media under similar circumstances?

The SA media has a colorful history of rejecting or curbing various attempts to scrutinise its credibility. In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made a pronouncement that the media - with a few exceptions - sanctioned apartheid, including the systematic gross human rights violations against the African people. The commission was also not impressed with the ‘Afrikaner Press' - which openly endorsed and promoted the notion of white superiority - for their decision to shun the special media hearings.

Former TRC Commissioner and journalist, Hugh Lewin, noted then that "the [media] bosses [in the ‘liberal' English Press] could provide no reasonable explanation of the fact that they did nothing, often for years, about the known government agents/spies who functioned in their midst." He further questioned "what the situation is today with spooks and their probable successors." Many such queries were left unanswered or unclear.

With this particular quasi-judicial finding around the neck, the media ought to appreciate that their assimilation - as an institution - into the post-‘94 democratic society was clouded with suspicions of possible misdemeanor on their part. It would therefore be in the interest of the profession to engage any allegations against the institution's integrity with as much sincerity and humility as possible.

In any case, if the media could get hold of confidential criminal investigation documents that were thought to be secure in the hands of the Scorpions and the National Prosecuting Authority, then surely it is not really crucial for the ANCYL to reveal its sources before any inquiry on the matter gets underway. This particular track record suggests that they are indeed a potent and competent investigative force. Therefore, failure to initiate such a move would inadvertently lead to reservations on the will of the Fourth Estate to perform their duties without fear or favor.

On the other hand, the ANCYL entered the democratic dispensation with a rich history of human rights activism and a convincing record for fighting and defeating the apartheid system. The party's former leaders are distinguished revolutionaries, including former President, Nelson Mandela, who has since become a universal idol. To the best of my knowledge, the current ANCYL leadership - in spite of the different style of leadership - has not contradicted any policy positions which were adopted by the earlier leaders, including the call for nationalisation.

If one had to decide between the integrity of a media - which has a history of sanctioning, aiding and abetting apartheid - and the integrity of an activist political movement - which has a history of leading a struggle against apartheid - the choice could not be too difficult. The question facing the media then is: Why should the South African public trust you?

Setumo Stone is a writer, social commentator and youth activist.

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