Remarks by Deputy Minister Ebrahim I Ebrahim at the Graduation Ceremony of Media24 Journalism Academy, 26 January 2011

“Media and the Practice of South Africa’s International Relations: Convergences and the Missing Links”

Programme Director,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by congratulating these young journalists on their achievement, and wishing them all the best as they are about to embark on a new journey!

I think it is important to note from the onset that there are many aspects on which we as Government and the members of the media find convergence. 

We agree that the media is an important asset for a country such as ours which is still challenged by disparities between the rich and poor, a country building a vibrant democracy on the ashes of the dictatorship of apartheid, and a country redeeming itself from being a pariah State to a responsible global citizen in the world of nations.

We find convergence on, among other things, the fact that the media is one of the points of contact between a government and its people, and now increasingly between peoples from all corners of the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For South Africa, of course, there is a history behind the value that government attaches to the role of the media in the building of a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist society. The struggle against apartheid was a popular fight against the denial of a large portion of the population of basic human freedoms including the right of access to information through a free media. Media outlets suffered badly under repressive laws of apartheid and many were closed down for daring to challenge the then Government propaganda about what was at play in the country.

The African National Congress (ANC) understood the important role played by the media in exposing the sins of apartheid to the world, thus helping to reinforce its message that apartheid South Africa needed to be isolated for flouting United Nations (UN) principles and resolutions. In a sense, the ANC’s understanding of the critical importance of finding a role for the media in its international campaigns aimed at paralysing the apartheid regime began long before the ideas of public diplomacy became current.

From the onset, the ANC-led Government adopted an open outlook on international relations and the media, because sound and mature relations with the media, as with other non-state actors, are a defining feature of the foreign policy of any democratic state. Hence, media liaison was established very early at the then Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Indeed, the practice of communicating to the people about what their government thought and was doing about major issues in international relations has intensified in the recent past.  In this context, I would like to share with you that the Department’s Public Diplomacy Branch has begun, amongst other initiatives, a public outreach programme. This is intended to create better awareness to people all over South Africa about the work of the Department, over and above what people hear and read in the media. 

On a regular basis and when a need arises, the Department holds press briefings and puts out media statements mostly through our website. However, as you well know, the majority in our society is not privy to all the modern developments of technology, and still depend on conventional media outlets as their sources of information.  Because it is vital that foreign policy issues are covered by newsrooms so that our society is better informed I believe it is young journalists like you that must find more innovative ways to ensure that foreign policy becomes something that is openly and regularly discussed in our society.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There is a shared belief that the world has become more integrated and that the flow of and access to information throughout the world has become an important asset. As such, governments have embraced the fact that media houses are critical partners in helping communicate not just their ideas, but they also consider them as an important vehicle for posturing globally, which is a matter I shall address in more detail shortly.

The relationship between international relations and the news media is an old one, for states have always had a need to communicate with each other and others continuously using various media.  It is precisely because of this role that the “fourth estate”, as I am sure you will agree, remains a contested and vibrant terrain of ideas and issues, including those of an international relations nature.  That is why we welcome the lively debate that has ensued since South Africa’s full membership of BRIC, renamed BRICS, was announced. Such debate can, indirectly, serve to inform the broader public about its government’s work on the international front.

We are quite conscious of the fact that we operate in a diplomatic space where the use and abuse of the media is a common occurrence. Our counterparts are continuously improving their ability to use media relations to project themselves favourably throughout the world, which is what I referred to earlier as posturing. For example, one of the lessons that we learned after our first tenure in the UN Security Council in 2007-8 was the importance of smart and timely communication through a tool that is termed: public diplomacy. In the UN Security Council, some of our positions were undermined when other members of the UN Security Council showed their cunning ability to use the media to vilify our positions by miscommunicating the rationale behind our decisions to the world at large well before we had had an opportunity to explain why we took those positions.  We have since learned the necessity to communicate quickly and clearly and also build and maintain good relations with media houses so that we can do so.

Having said all this, allow me, Programme Director, to highlight a few issues that reflect “the Missing Links”.

Firstly, let me boldly declare that the task of our Government is to serve the people and has to represent all the classes and cleavages in society, while media outlets are business entities, which in the main, are accountable to shareholders for profit. There are times, for whatever reason, when journalists, have to gauge when and what issues to focus on.  And somehow, it is only when an issue becomes “too-hot” to ignore that it is considered in the newsroom. Therefore, the first issue to emphasise is that, because of our different “mandates” we may not always agree on what it is that our people deserve to know.

Secondly, and you will forgive me if I am wrong, I think that a number of our newsrooms in South Africa have some shortcomings, in terms of coverage of foreign news broadly, and our international relations work specifically. I have at times wondered how many of our newsrooms have properly staffed, well-resourced and trained “foreign or international relations desks”?  How many of our newsrooms have been able to deploy their reporters outside of South Africa in order to report, write and inform about developments in other countries? Some newsrooms have only recently started building this capacity, while some have lost it, due to various permutations affecting the continued operation of media houses.

These are some of the important questions for us as a Department, especially in this year as we have just assumed our second term in the UN Security Council. How much time has been spent in our newsrooms studying the inner workings of multilateral diplomacy, the UN Security Council to be exact, and familiarised ourselves with the inner workings of the UN Security Council, so that we are able to report accurately, and factually? There are many events in my view that are taking place throughout the world which are somewhat interconnected, which affect our foreign policy one way or another, but all that information is lost due to a lack of news coverage and analysis by prominent public commentators.

Thirdly, more often than not, but I stand corrected, when I read stories of an international nature in our local print media, I realise that such stories are either written or received through other “foreign news media”, such as Reuters, AFP, and others. While this is not necessarily wrong, but I do think that it limits the ability to tell the story differently; to own the story; or express a diversity of opinion on an issue that may be controversial and force people to take sides.

I must also admit that at times we find ourselves asking simple questions such as what lies behind the so-called “factual reporting”; what informs it, and what agenda do we seek to serve by reporting on a particular story, using a particular angle? In a way, these simple questions find resonance in the view of the ruling party that the “media is a contested terrain, and therefore not neutral, but reflects the ideological battles and power relations based on race, class and gender in our society”.  This view could help us understand that perhaps it is no coincidence that generally stories about and on Africa that we get to read or hear about through our local media are generally very negative; and we hardly see stories that portray Africa and Africans in a positive light?

There are also times that we even wonder if indeed there is truth in the assumption that a positive story will not sell newspapers if it is put on the front page, or that it will not attract viewership if it is cast as one of the main headlines in a news bulletin? Is it true that the news that sells is the one that carries the ugly sordid detail, your “not so usual run off the mill” kind of story that attracts an audience? Programme Director, I raise these issues so that we can somehow consider having some kind of a dialogue that would enable us close whatever gaps that may exist between us.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am inspired by this invitation, and I think it should open up many a future opportunities for closer interaction between the Department, and Media24 for now, and of course other media outlets.  We need to try and explore creative ways that would enable all of us to better inform the broader public about developments in our continent, and beyond. Certainly, these collaborative ways, if we were to find them, must not be aimed nor misunderstood as the government wanting to muzzle or to tell the media how to do its job.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me once again; wish our young graduates all the best, and I implore them to take their profession seriously and hold it in utmost respect. I would like to leave you with the words of one of the largest media moguls in the United States of America (USA), William Bernbach, who is quoted as having said the following (I quote):

All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.

I thank you

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