He complained, in particular, about the impact of media attacks on his family and about the media’s failure to apologise to him when (his own) investigation into the Nkandla issue cleared him of all wrong-doing:

“Zuma has squandered R250 million at Nkandla – that’s what you say. There has been an investigation done and it has been proved that Zuma has not taken even half a penny. You (the media) have never come back to say ‘sorry, our sources were wrong. Zuma did not indeed take that money. He is not corrupt.’”

Despite having to bear the brunt of all these unfair attacks President Zuma assured his audience that “Government will continue to promote media freedom and to protect the right and space for the media to report without fear or favour as has been happening for the past 21 years of freedom.”

However, is his and the ANC’s idea of media freedom the same as everyone else’s?

The President is quite clear about how he thinks media should wield their considerable power. They must ensure that media access is “enjoyed by all in the country, including the poor and the working class”. Media products must “reflect the lives of the majority” and the majority “have the space to share their dreams, successes and hardships, accurately and without prejudice”. The media must “inspire and build our country”.

In fact, the ANC believes that the media have a central role to play in the National Democratic Revolution. According to the 2010 NGC discussion documents:

“The ANC holds that in our National Democratic Revolution (NDR), the media should contribute to the transformation of our country. Building social cohesion and promoting values of a caring society are an essential part of the battle of ideas and must underpin and inform the manner in which the media operates. The accountability and fairness of reporting are central to the objective assessment of the gains of the NDR.”

The ANC also made no secret of its media goals: “Our objectives therefore are to vigorously communicate the ANC’s outlook and values (developmental state, collective rights, values of caring and sharing community, solidarity, ubuntu, non-sexism, working together) versus the current mainstream media’s ideological outlook (neo-liberalism, a weak and passive state, and overemphasis on individual rights, market fundamentalism, etc.).”

To achieve these goals the print media must be transformed. The 2010 NGC accordingly called for:

Since then, significant progress progress has been made with the media transformation programme. Control of the media by “neo-liberal” interests has been diluted by the acquisition of Independent Newspapers – with funds provided inter alia by the PIC; Government has subsidised friendly media with advertising and sponsorship of special breakfasts; and increasing pressure is now being directed against Naspers – the country’s strongest media company.

Against this background, it was but a skip and a jump for president Zuma to move to the actual purpose of his address: his announcement that the Government plans to press ahead with the Protection of State Information Bill and with the Media Appeals Tribunal.

Although the Protection of State Information Bill has been improved, it nevertheless fails to meet the demands of its critics – particularly because there is still no public interest defence and because people caught in possession of classified information could still receive substantial prison sentences.

The Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) is now, once again, on the table. It had its roots in a resolution adopted at the ANC’s 2007 National Conference at Polokwane on the need to “balance the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the media, with the right to equality, to privacy and human dignity for all.”

The ANC believed that the MAT was necessary because the Press’s own system of self-regulation had failed. The proposal was supported by President Zuma, who said that the media “need to be governed themselves because at times they go overboard on the rights.”  He added that the media claimed to be “the watchdog of the people”, but “they were never elected”. He said that the media was not the only body that understood rights: “We at the ANC, we believe we do. We fought for the rights.”

President Zuma and the ANC clearly feel the need to trundle more legislative artillery onto what they call the battlefield of ideas. He – and the ANC – have been haemorrhaging   support because of what they regard as the unfair and personal attacks of the neo-liberal media. Now, they want to do something about it – to promote a media environment that will be more conducive to the National Democratic Revolution and that National Democratic Society that it wants to establish.

It was a nice touch to make the announcement on Media Freedom Day.

By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation