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ComTask forgotten: SA media freedom's journey from sunshine to shadows

Date Released: Fri, 26 April 2013 10:34 +0200

As this country gets set to celebrate Freedom Day, the National Assembly passes the secrecy bill – a signal of how far the state has fallen short of its noble, early day intent of creating an open, ‘sunshine government’.

Eighteen years ago South Africa was bursting with excitement as millions of people across the country prepared to vote in an election that would forever signal the end to the darkness that was Apartheid, and to begin a new era of democracy, non-racialism and freedom. Now marked annually as Freedom Day, April 27 is a perpetual reminder of how liberty triumphed over oppression.

Just two days before this country celebrates Freedom Day again this year, the National Assembly passed the Protection of State Information Bill with an overwhelming majority, while South Africa's Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele, said ironically: “Today, as we debate to adopt the Protection of State Information Bill during the week of Freedom Day, we are confident that it has addressed (the) concerns of our people.”

But the secrecy bill’s fast march to becoming law is yet another shadow, a further blemish on a state that once set itself the ideal of becoming a ‘sunshine government’. In 1996, two years after South Africa became a democracy, a task team lead by Mandla Langa (who would later become a board member at the SABC, and chair at ICASA) would table a report called Communications 2000: A vision for government communications in South Africa (the Comtask 2000 report). It would act as a vision for transparent, open and free communications. Reading this report today is a reminder of just how far the government has strayed.

The report speaks about South Africa ushering in “a new spirit of freedom of expression” after Apartheid and National Party rule that was characterised by a “culture of secrecy, disinformation, and restrictions on press freedom” that “infused government thinking.” The report reads in its introduction. “Almost overnight, the introduction of constitutional guarantees in respect of freedom of the media and the public's right to information promises a new, open and accountable style of government,” it continues.

“What we need to do is to go back to the Comtask 2000 report,” Jane Duncan, the Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, tells Daily Maverick. “Comtask did an extensive overview of the state of government communications and came up with a very good set of principles for when, how and why government should communicate. It also looked at media-government relations as well and how to better those,” says Duncan. “Comtask attempted to find a way of reducing government control over the media and set about dismantling a lot of the propaganda tools that were set up by the Apartheid government – that was its role,” Duncan adds.

Set up in the mid-nineties by then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, the role of Comtask was to examine government communications policy; to investigate the relationship between the state and society’s watchdogs – the media; and to look at control and ownership of the media with a view to radically improving government communication. The thinking was that an Apartheid government had failed communications systems, and that a new democracy should herald a new era of transparency, freedom, consultative government and citizen engagement.

The Comtask initiative, which cost the government R3 million in 1995 and 1996, made wide-ranging recommendations, from improving media diversity to ensuring that government information would be accessible to the media. “Government has recognised freedom of expression as an entrenched tenet of our new democratic society, but it has done so within the context of a society with an inheritance of severe deprivation in regard to information and dialogue with government,” reads the report penned by an impressive team.

Headed by Langa, the Comtask team included Mathatha Tsedu (Nieman Fellow, Mondi Shanduka lifetime achiever and former City Press editor); Willem de Klerk (the now deceased former editor of Rapport, political analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Party); David Dison (the media lawyer, founder of the Weekly Mail, author and anti-censorship activist); Stephen Mncube (current ICASA chair); Val Pauquet (involved in communications for NGO Heartlines); Steve Godfrey (associated with BBC World Service Trust, the UN, as well as former Head of the Office of the Commonwealth Secretariat in SA and Board Member of EISA, the Electoral Institute for Southern Africa); Raymond Louw (2010 World Press Freedom Hero and former Rand Daily Mail editor); Sebiletso Mokone-Matabane (currently Sentech CEO and co-chair of the Independent Broadcasting Authority); as well as media regulatory expert, Tshepo Rantho.

“In principle what Comtask did was to reject the view of government as a strong controller of media, or an owner of media in its own right. The idea was to establish a Ministry of Communications rather than a Ministry of Information, because the old information ministry was really all about one-way communication from government to the people, where the state told people what to think,” says Duncan.

Comtask was all about moving away from a broadcast-type, authoritarian model of communication to a government that promoted two-way, dialogic communication so that the state could enter into a dialogue with the electorate, rather than getting its constituents to shut-up and drink the propaganda Kool-Aid. “The initiative called for a range of measures to democratise the media and make media access easier than it had been during apartheid,” Duncan explains.

The task team, who surveyed communications systems in 19 different democracies, made some 83 recommendations for the then Government of National Unity to implement, which included the opening of access to information. “A number of legislative matters are important for creating an environment of access to information including the Open Democracy Act and the removal of anachronistic legislation that impinges on the freedom of the press,” the report reads. “Government departments and statutory bodies should be required to make all unclassified documents available in electronic form to the proposed government Homepage, and private bodies should not be accorded proprietary status of such material. Further efforts should be made to establish a system of cataloguing of all government documentation,” it states.

“I think that gradually what we’ve seen is a shift away from the basic principles that were set by Comtask,” says Duncan. “There seems to be a concerted effort to bring back the logic of a Ministry of Information and to try to establish a type of Ministry of Information by stealth,” she says. The former Head of South Africa's Government Communication and Information Services, Jimmy Manyi, was a strong case in point with his intent to centralise government communications and to reward those media that portrayed the state in a positive light with state advertising spend.

“The move to an information style ministry certainly didn’t start with Manyi, but it definitely intensified during his ‘rule’,” says Duncan who adds that Manyi’s ‘logic’ has been reproduced in the provinces, more so the Free State Provincial government where centralised communications spend under Ace Magashule has become a veritable propaganda machine.

The Free State under the premiership of Magashule has been beset with service delivery protests which have intensified since 2004, and which led to the death of Andries Tatane. “Magashule has proved to be quite controversial, and in many places highly unpopular, so I think it's not coincidental that state spending in that province is increasing on media coverage of the premier and the provincial government; and that there's also what seems to be an increasing attempt to launch a government media in that region,” Duncan says.

“It seems to be quite telling that the State is getting more involved in the media in a variety of ways, but this seems to be quite a seasonal thing and generally happens ahead of an ANC elective conference, or ahead of the national elections. It seems to be designed to shore up support for a party that is gradually losing support at the polls,” says Duncan. “The ANC’s losses may be incremental, but the ruling party is gradually going down in what is a long-term trend in electoral support.”

As South Africa moves closer towards the 2014 elections, the noble vision and recommendations of ComTask are going to be left further and further behind. “You're probably going to see an intensification of spending on government communications in order to communicate the message that an ANC government has delivered, and continues to deliver,” Duncan predicts. “The other trend is a possibly renewed attempt to invest in government media as a counter to what it considers to be an unpatriotic media, particularly the press. Government seems to be especially concerned about the watchdog role of the press, which it considers unpatriotic, so you may well see a renewed attempt to increase government spending to achieve this,” she says.

The big question is, who will monitor government communications spend in the run up to elections at a national, provincial and local level, and discern legitimate investments from what is clearly propaganda aimed at buoying up the ruling party and its politicians?

“I haven't heard any vigorous debates taking place in Parliament about this particular issue, and I think that's a weakness in the oversight role of Parliament. I think parallel to that there also needs to be a debate about whether the original vision of Comtask is still being implemented, and whether the spending on government communications isn't better spent on pursuing that original vision of democratising communications that Comtask had?” Duncan asks.

With a public broadcaster in turmoil, given that oversight on state communications is weak, and that the communications ministry is in crisis and our associated regulators are underfunded, SA’s discourse regarding communications seems (tragically) stuck on Dina Pule’s lover, her spat with the Sunday Times and those shoes – this at a time when the light of freedom is being muted by shadow. And as this country regresses it is crucial that all freedom-loving citizens “do not go gentle”; but “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

Written by: Mandy de Waal

Picture credit: Daily Maverick

  • This article was published on Daily Maverick.

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