WHEN the Independent Group was taken over by a consortium lead by Dr Iqbal Surve, there were some like me, who hoped for a fresh start. The group quickly ran into criticism, the least of which is the highly publicized debacle surrounding the firing of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois.
After a settlement was extricated at Labour Court, the group once again ran into trouble with Dasnois accusing the group of being in breach of the settlement and so Independent was sanctioned by the Press Council, which ordered the group to apologise for a number of misleading headlines.
No sooner had the ruling by the Press Council been issued, when Independent announced it was withdrawing from the council, and a structure which had arrived out of decades of frenetic negotiation around a government-sanctioned self-regulatory mechanism. The reasons for the withdrawal were attacked for ‘not making logical sense‘.
“In ditching the Press Council, Independent Media listed as its main complaint the Press Council’s reluctance to reintroduce the highly contentious waiver as its reason for ditching the Press Council” wrote Julie Reid.
Previously, complainants waved legal action in order to bring their complaints under the auspices of the council, however the very reason the council had been set up was threefold. Firstly to avoid government regulation and intervention in the press. Secondly, to provide the public with a cost effective and impartial forum for making complaints and thirdly, to provide a Press Code that was not simply written by one organisation.
In its stead, Independent reverted to an internal Ombudsman system which had been in place during the years of the former Argus Group, and a state of affairs for which the Argus had already apologised during the TRC media hearings. In the process Independent dumped the Press Code, and formulated its own narrow view of the press, which appears to by nothing less than gabbering sycophancy so far as government is concerned.
In this sense, not only was the industry seemingly ‘regulating itself’, but the company was now distancing its titles from the legal system as well as the press council framework, in effect picking its own favourite regulator, a friendly Muslim, whilst playing a dual role of both editorial and inhouse complaints resolution. Thus setting in motion a situation where Dr Iqbal Surve, and his male-dominated and sectarian newsrooms, possessed an administrative override on any complaints made to his news organisation. While women still figure in writing and reporting, they are remarkably absent when it comes to editorship within the group and where they do affect editorial, they invariably occupy a symbolic role.
Of concern, is that there is currently no means of enforcing the Press Code when it comes to the Independent Group, and with our legal system being rather expensive and out of reach of the ordinary public, the result has been positively stifling.
Gone was any effort to balance news stories affecting a range of controversial subjects around the world, in particular the USA and Middle East.
Gone was divergence of opinion on the opinion pages.
Gone was the plethora of letters debating, disagreeing, and calling editors and writers to task.
In their place were editorial love letters, and weekly ravings by self-styled news correspondents such as “foreign editor” Shannon Ebrahim and “analyst” Ebrahim Harvey, two obviously Muslim persons, followed by lengthy and often turgid materialist and industrialist views of South Africa and the World. A world viewed via the narrow Islamic prism of the likes of Aneez Salie and Aziz Hartley.
A former shipping columnist Brian Ingpen for instance, is now a regular opinion piece in the Cape Times op-ed pages, providing the dull rigmerol of shipping information flowing into the gutters, alongside dense and impenetrable press releases, like that issued by DIRCO yesterday presumably testifying to the joys of a BRICS summit to be held in Joburg and thus available to buyers of the now 10 page rag, in 10 point type.
Independent titles in recent months have come to resemble government tearsheets, with short thrift given to concerns about whose opinion in the broader community should receive priority over the daily thrust of a hopelessly compromised news agency ANA, and equally boring headlines, with the one exception, that it appears INM have now launched a sports magazine, if only to allay fears that the group is going under.
Suppression of views with which one disagrees are the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. As a well-known commentator puts it, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Having a daily press the size of Independent producing government propaganda and fan-mail for the Surve Group, whilst censoring opinion, can only have the opposite effect to liberal democracy. There is a reason why Pravda is now a fashion label and a single newspaper in Russia, and is no longer the state news agency for the Soviet Union.
REVELATIONS that South Africa’s media were the targets of a dirty tricks operation at the behest of the apartheid government, named Operation Romulus, and that the victim was the late Winnie Mandela, were bound to cause a sensation. More so in the aftermath of her death. Embedded journalism is highly problematic. The least of which is the impact, it has had on several titles that may be implicated.
The untested claims attributed to Stratcom agent, Vic McPherson are all contained in the documentary on Winnie by Pascal Le Marche. The Citizen however, was forced to remove an article entitled “Stratcom Reporters at the Weekly Mail”, issuing an apology to then editor, Anton Harber, as did the Huffington Post.
Readers may remember the circumstances in which the apartheid government bought and paid for the Citizen in what became known as the Information Scandal, and the manner in which both South Press and Medialternatives itself were banned, the latter by none other than Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee, after yours truly exposed the problem of apartheid embedded journalism at the Independent Group (formerly Argus Group).
“We failed to seek out comment from Harber, Gqubule and Mathiane before publishing untested allegations. We are deeply sorry and apologise without reservation” wrote Huffpost editor-in-chief Pieter du Toit. A title, which is also the subject of some controversy surrounding its inclusion in the Naspers stable. An apartheid corporation, responsible for Stratcom and whose newsrooms until recently carried portraits of editors such as D F Malan and HF Verwoerd.
Thus it came as no surprise that Weekly Mail, along with its former racist bedmates, was now being implicated. After a sterling run as the bastion of progressive politics, the successor to the Weekly Mail, threw its lot in with 24.com, while the online version of the newspaper under Chris Roper, became the proving ground for former apartheid spies and journos.
Winnie Mandela repeats many of the claims in a recent interview conducted before her death. The result ended up in a takedown of posts at two media houses, both themselves implicated in the apartheid regime. The original Citizen article is only available as a cached page on google.
It may seem a little too convenient then, that Politicsweb, responsible for banning Medialternatives on Black Wednesday, rose to the defense of Harber, apparently quoting a 1995 Weekly Mail expose of Stratcom and thus the words of one Paul Erasmus
The article pictured to the left, by
embedded investigative journalist Stefaans Brummer, fails to examine the implications of a stratcom operation aimed at the Weekly Mail newsroom, and its NIA successors under the new regime.
Was Harber in fact also the target as many newsrooms were during the struggle? The full extent of Operation Romulus is only now becoming public record.
A fuller investigation into the many skeletons housed and embedded within South Africa’s press and their shortcomings during apartheid, is most certainly warranted. Declassifying documents may be the first step according to Open Secrets’ Hennie van Vuuren.
Watch eNCA below reflect on the media during this period.
LAST week the Competition Commission announced that it was investigating 28 media companies, including Media24 for collusion on advertising pricing, and that Caxton and Independent Media had already pleaded guilty and/or had paid fines. The investigation avoids the troubling impact of cartel behaviour already demonstrated and reported here and here.
While some may accuse the CompCom of casting its net too wide, it is most certainly picking low-lying fruit and scratching the surface. One can only hope that its next port of call is to investigate the over-concentration and cross-ownership which is stifling journalists and readers alike.
Cartels and monopolies are not simply bad for business and competition but create the situation where news itself is overly centralised and where public opinion is subject to newsroom censorship. The result is bad for democracy and the outcome, the manufacture and manipulation of public opinion, unacceptable in a constitutional state.
A YOUTUBE video posted by Adam Spires, substantiates claims that millions of gallons of drinking water are being allowed to escape, flowing downstream from a major dam, apparently to save farmers. Posted earlier this month, the video shows the sluice gates are open at a dam site outside of Cape Town, posing the question why is this happening? With Zero Day approaching, and the water crisis beginning to impact upon households, why are wealthy farmers in the country’s wine estates benefitting? Is this another case of the Stellenbosch Mafia coming first while ordinary citizens’ needs are sacrificed? Why are local media houses publishing incorrect information on water shortages?
KOOS BEKKER is a very rich South African. He effectively controls a massive portion of South African news and media. In many ways, he can be considered the Rupert Murdoch of Africa. He has a net worth of roughly $1.6 billion and is the chairman of Naspers, which controls or owns outlets such as the South African Huffington Post.
Rupert Murdoch is an apt comparison; he’s not the only billionaire who has a huge stake in journalism. The owners also aren’t exclusively in news media, and to many, their news outlets are a side project, a way to project power or simply something to have (like a car or an extra mansion).
Naspers and Ties to Censorship
Corporations and the extremely wealthy, as a general rule, do not care much about censorship. In fact, the only thing most of them will oppose is a lack of profits. For example, Naspers was complicit in the apartheid regime, and the Afrikaans press was used to keep the oppressive regime in place. They’ve apologized for their actions, but this only occurred far after apartheid turned out to be the losing side. In other words: when it was profitable and politically expedient to do so.
Naspers, having many interests that get in the way of the truth and holding ties to many companies and countries that can prove to be a competing influence (as opposed to the public good), is the perfect example of this.
To go into more detail, Naspers owns Media24, a media group that states it’s interested in freedom of the press and other media freedoms. Yet that comes into conflict with the fact that Naspers’ largest stake is in Tencent, a Chinese tech and social media company who enforces social media censorship by the Chinese government.
This raises a major concern: Do Naspers’ Chinese ties and Koos Becker’s business interests compromise the integrity of South African news? It would be easy for such a company to keep a few unfavorable stories quiet.
Even just fifty years ago it would be considered possible for a new startup, with some capital and resolve, to break into the news and media business and hope to succeed.
Now, given the equipment that is needed and the poor returns in general of the newspaper business (or the entire news industry), along with the fast-paced nature of online news, journalism is a rich man’s game, and that isn’t a good thing. In America, for example, 90 percent of their media is controlled by six companies. South Africa’s situation is hardly different.
These barriers to entry remove variety from the press, eliminating competition and lowering the standards of news for people. People will either get compromised or poorly-formed journalism or nothing at all. Unfortunately, there are few examples showing there’s a better way.
Voices Get Silenced
If the press isn’t free from corporate interests, it’s hardly different from government control. It’s merely serving a different entity with different priorities. Larger entities tied to power won’t report on threats to that power to avoid giving them their justified attention and public interest. When was the last time you heard about the Shack Dweller’s movement and their protests on a major station?
Individual voices and good journalists also get regularly silenced when they try to make the difference. Desmond Cole and the Toronto Star is merely one example of this outside of South Africa. Others accuse the media, including News24, of not showing good news whatsoever and inciting violence amongst the people.
People Fighting Back
The situation looks grim, but people can and will fight back against the oligarchic control of information perfectly encapsulated by Naspers’ actions. Billionaires, try as they might, do not have control of reality.
Citizen journalism has become a trend with the advent of social media and information technology. A video at a scene cannot be so easily denied as false, and a trending topic or a viral post cannot be so easily ignored by the media elites if they want to keep credibility with the public. While it’s not perfect and certainly does not meet the standards of independent professionals, its mere existence is a threat to corporate control and a step forward.
Other people continue to expose the truth while hiding from the limelight (and the wrath of those companies). People will cover their tracks and use tools such as online proxies to stay anonymous as they bring us the truth about conglomerates, from inside or without. Without people like this willing to fight back, there’s no telling what the state of the news media would be today.
This problem will not go away on its own, and it will likely get worse before it gets better. People need to know what is happening and how the billionaires are controlling them to feel the anger to fight back. There are more protagonists out there besides Naspers, and even if one person is taken out of the news arena, more will appear, blocking genuine change in the way things are done or avoiding a viable alternative. There is a chance to change the flow of information, and South Africans can’t afford to miss out.
Do you happen to know anything else about Naspers or have a story you would like to share? Are you concerned about the growing consolidations of private media and the news? What else do you think they’re hiding? Please leave a comment below and tell us your thoughts.
THIS YEAR marks 30 years since the banning of the ‘Towards the People’s Culture’ festival by the Botha government in 1986, with a festival event appropriately titled Marking the ’86 People’s Culture Festival
The original festival was meant to gather prominent artists in a collective response to the injustices of apartheid whilst deploying the arts as a tool for social justice. Instead we all found ourselves on the wrong side of the law, as the de facto military junta behind the Botha government clamped down on student resistance to apartheid, unleashing strong-arm tactics that would result in the banning of artists and musicians.
A pivotal moment, I remember walking down Loop Street, Cape Town, having just received the news that the festival which included bands such as Smoking Brass and Raakwys, had been banned, and thinking, now the @#$& has really hit the fan. It came as a big shock, still in my debut first year at UCT, and merely a member of a Nusas sub-committee, (signed up upon orientation), assisting with the festival, we found to our horror, that the colour of ones skin was absolutely no protection from the ‘State of Emergency’.
If a bunch of white, privileged students, including Ivan Toms could get banned en masse, where would it ever end? If music was illegal, where was the humanity in the system we were opposing?
The suppression of the festival radicalised students, many of whom ended up participating in covert underground operations. It also lead to the creation of the Kagenna Project & Earthlife Africa, as the reality started of ad hoc bannings, the police invasion of campus, the very next year, and the eventual outright banning of the End Conscription Campaign two years later.
Not broken in spirit, there would still be many underground festivals, and secret arts venues where students for instance pretended to go to a Woman’s Rights or Gay Rights party, only for it to turn into a full-blown Anti-Apartheid Event, replete with appearances by banned & underground MK cadres.
Love affairs would occur across the barricades. Spies on campus would be uncovered. A dirty tricks campaign would manifest itself. We would get regular visits from the special branch or stopped and searched by the apartheid military, those infamous conscripts in casspirs, as the State of Emergency made itself felt, even in leafy Atlantic garden suburbs.
This 10 December 2016 we will mark the banning through a series of events that include a market, musical performances, live installations and a symbolic lantern procession through the streets of Salt River.
Organisers of the commemorative event, Cornerstone CEO, Noel Daniels, said on Friday, “This event will not only mark the banning of the festival, but will also comprise a symbolic unbanning.”
Acclaimed Cape Town songstress Tina Schouw will reflect on the halcyon period in the 80’s.
Another iconic 80’s band Raakwys ( featuring Valmont Layne, Andre Sampie and Aki Khan) will perform songs that look back at just how far we’ve come along on the road to freedom.
Mthwakazi will ‘honour the sense of ceremony with her mesmerizing and haunting hybridized style of music’ which is apparently a crossover between Xhosa Indigenous Bow music and Opera.
Sylvestre Kabassidi will close the night with sounds from his native Ponte Noire, DRC.
The full programme is as follows:
16:00 Market opens
17:00 Performance by Tina Schouw
19:30 People’s Education participatory liberation songs intervention
20:00 Lantern procession through Salt River (lanterns available for purchase at the Market)
20:15 Performance by Mthwakazi
21:00 Performance by Sylvestre Kabassidi
Parking is available at 121 Cecil Road, Salt River for R10.
Media Enquiries: Ukhona Mlandu, 084 462 2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
General Enquiries: Hylton Bergh, 021 448 0050 or email@example.com
On 23rd March the United Nations Human Rights Committee released its assessment on South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The report includes a blistering attack on the Government for failing to respect the privacy of the communications of users and makes recommendations to reform the laws and practice of surveillance in the country.
The Committee’s findings repudiated the Government’s claims that its surveillance practices, based on the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communications-related Information Act(or, RICA, as it’s commonly called in South Africa), are justifiable, given the country’s extremely high crime rate and the global terrorist threat.
RICA makes it illegal to intercept communications without a warrant from a designated judge (the “RICA” judge). Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are authorised to use the Act to assist investigations, providing they follow the procedures in the Act.
South Africa’s Parliament passed RICA into law along with other anti-terrorist laws in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. The world was in shock at the brutality of the attacks, and in South Africa, citizens were also crime-weary after a massive crime spike in the late 1990’s. As a result, many were more open to rights-reducing laws like RICA. But more people are realising that, in their freedom, they may have given an important element of their freedom away, namely the privacy of their communications.
In the past, when there has been political ferment in the ruling party, different factions have abused their access to the communications surveillance capacities of the state to spy on their perceived opponents. The full extent of these problems came to light in 2008 when a ministerial report into these abuses was leaked to the press (known as the Matthews Commission report).
The Matthews Commission proposed wide-ranging reforms to prevent similar abuses from occurring again. However, there is little reason to believe that these reforms have been implemented. One of the practices the Matthews Commission criticised was that mass surveillance did not fall under RICA. The UN Committee has amplified this criticism in its report.
There are two interception centres in South Africa: The Office for Interception Centres (OIC), which is established by RICA to undertake communication interception, and The National Communications Centre (NCC), which undertakes mass surveillance, and which isn’t established or regulated by any law. This lack of regulation and oversight renders such mass surveillance unlawful and unconstitutional. After the Matthews Commission report was released, the-then Ministry of Intelligence developed two Bills to regulate the activities of the NCC. However, once the Jacob Zuma Presidency assumed office, both Bills were shelved.
This means that the most powerful mass surveillance machine of the state is the one that is least regulated: an issue that should concern South Africans greatly, as the Government has a track record of abusing such power.
Other abuses have come to light, despite of the lack of transparency around government spying. Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika, had his communications intercepted by members of the Crime Intelligence Division of the police, on suspicion that his frequent trips to neighbouring Mozambique meant that he was gun-running. Yet in fact, he was pursuing a story for the paper.
Perversely, the Inspector-General of Intelligence – tasked with oversight of South Africa’s intelligence services – declared the interception of wa Afrika’s communications legal, as the police had followed the RICA process. This situation arose because the grounds for the issuing of interception warrants in RICA are vague and speculative. This was another concern in the UN Committee report.
The Committee also expressed concern over weak safeguards, lack of oversight, and lack of remedies against unlawful interference. The RICA judge marks his or her own homework, in that s/he signs off on interception applications, while also being the sole party responsible to report on such decisions in an annual report to Parliament’s intelligence committee.
The Committee also noted that RICA is also weak on metadata protections. RICA requires communications service providers to retain all metadata (or what it calls communications-related information) for 3 to 5 years.
Blanket retention of metadata has become a hugely controversial issue. In 2014, the European Court of Justice struck down the European Union Data Retention Directive saying such retention was disproportionate to the aim it sought to achieve. South Africa remains out of step with this important development, and blanket retention of metadata persists.
Another controversial feature of RICA is the requirement of Subscriber Information Module (SIM) card registration. This is a de-facto violation of privacy because it limits the ability of mobile phone users to communicate anonymously. A growing body of international research also suggests that this measure is useless as a crime-fighting tool, which raises the question of why such a requirement persists in South Africa. More worrying, mass surveillance technologies can also be bolted onto the SIM registration database.
While the Committee did not pronounce on all issues of concerns, such as South Africa’s possible use of IMSI Catchers, and RICA’s lack of user notification, the Committee’s recommendations are a major advancement in the struggle for privacy of communications in South Africa. It is now up to civil society and popular movements to pick up the cudgels and ensure that abuses – to the extent that they exist – are stopped.
Many have argued that in the age of the internet of everything, privacy is dead. Those who make this argument, including in South Africa, appear not to be aware that the struggle for privacy is, in fact, alive and well, and even gaining ground. Happily, the Committee’s report on South Africa shows that reports on the death of privacy are greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain.
[Ed note: This piece first appeared as: Reports of the death of communications privacy are greatly exaggerated: reflections on recent UN Human Rights Committee’s findings on South Africa, by Privacy International.]