Journalist often have the responsibility of disseminating information to the public, as the fourth estate and often described as the “watch dog”, the media needs to ensure that it maintains a critical level of professionalism. However, journalists are human beings since robot-journalism hasn’t reached its peak yet in South Africa, with thus said many of them have citizenship within South Africa. As per the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution, Section 19 states that “Every citizen is free to make political choices, which includes the right – to participate in the activities of a political party” (South African Constitution, 2017).
This is where deontology clashes with teleology, while journalists are ordinary citizens outside of their profession; their political affiliations have often created an illusion of distrust and unfair coverage within the media. The purpose of this article is to analyze the controversy surrounding South African journalist or media endorsing political parties. In order to substantiate this argument further I will employ the competing professional values in conjunction with a classical ethical framework. (The M&G Online, 2017)
As it should be known the South African media has established a self-regulatory body as a system to deal with ethical and professional lapses within the press thus being the Press Council of South Africa. According to the Press Council of South Africa; “South Africa is thus the direct opposite of countries where governments and other institutions try to exercise control over editorial content generally by seeking to punish editors and journalists for publishing stories that embarrass them, or disclose conduct that politicians, officials, business persons and others wish to keep secret” (Presscouncil.org.za, 2017).
Outside of the press council, stands a separate body which operates under similar principles but is set up for the electronic media e.g. radio or television and this is known as the Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCASA). The BCCSA is carried out by the Press Ombudsman and Appeals Panel under the overall administrative control of the Press Council.
In a nutshell these self-regulatory bodies are instruments that regulate the media outside of government restrictions, all media entities need to adhere to the regulations stipulated by this body. The above mentioned bodies are a form of deontological approaches, which are a set of laws or rules that are codified in some text and serve as a decision making tool. As a result many media entities – be it the press or electronic media – establish their own code of ethics with many of their principles derived from the press council. The codes of ethics within each media house vary and are used on a daily basis as a guide to make ethical decisions (Mg.co.za, 2017).
South Africa has a history of journalist who often openly disclosed their parties of affiliations especially under the apartheid era. These include the likes of – Tony Heard, editor at the Cape Times who was sympathetic to the ANC and Cape Times veteran columnist, John Scott who resigned as assistant editor to stand as a Progressive Federal Party candidate in Simon’s Town (Mde, 2017).
While others would confidently agree the importance of journalist like those mentioned above to the public, others would identify this as an absence of objectivity. The reason why other identify this as an absence of objectivity is because journalist are the gate keepers of information and in such need to be impartial and unbiased when reporting in particular matters that pertain to politics.
One’s political beliefs or affiliations should never influence their professional space, yet this easily said than done especially because journalist without realizing at times are indirectly influenced by their person ideologies. This is where the deontological approach is put into practice; the code of ethics clearly states that journalists at all costs should avoid conflicts of interest that could negatively influence their credibility. (Wasserman, 2017)
While a set of codified rules are set out to follow them in their professional spaces, journalist do not always adhere to them, for example – Karima Brown executive editor of Independent media and fellow veteran journalists Vukani Mde attended ANC’s 103 celebrations in 2015 and posted pictures of themselves in ANC regalia. The public went into frenzy with South African citizens taking to social media to express their dismay while others simply expressed that Karima and Mde were simply exercising their political right. While section 3 of the Press council clearly states that; “The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting” the code that was breached according to Daily Maverick journalist Thamm (THAMM, 2017).
According to Thamm, journalists that openly express their affiliations with political parties are more likely to be biased, their opinions are already influenced by their chosen ideology and thereof endorsing their favored political party as opposed to fair coverage then becomes a difficult task. We have seen examples of this in the media with Business Day’s Peter Bruce who has no problem in publically slandering the current government or political journalist Carol Paton, who easily contextualizes power battles within political parties (McKaiser, 2017).
Another question to be asked here is what of political leaders who transition into the media for example, looking at the Sunday Times’s Gareth van Onselen, who once passionately supported the Democratic Alliance and is often faced with the challenging task of criticizing leaders of that party which in most cases unsuccessful.
Yet simply blaming journalists for their inability to be objective, is like turning a blind eye to state owned broadcasters like the SABC. Not forgetting the Gupta family who previously owned ANN7 television station but to date still owns The New Age and Independent Newspapers. South Africa has the advantage of enjoy free press but in a strictly regulated environment, this is evident in the Protection of State Information Bill (Secrecy Bill), the National Key Points Act, the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill and the now-on-hold Media Appeals Tribunal resolution of the ANC. One can clearly observe how laws have been created to control media but the government still ceases control over the media by adverting to publications and media outlets. (THAMM, 2017)
In an attempt to solve this dilemma, Kant’s categorical Imperative will be applied which simply states that “act on that maxim which you will to become a universal law”(Kant Ethics, 2017). Which translates to a deontological principle, that works in a manner whereby what is perceived as right for none situation should be accepted as right at a similar situation. Kant’s ethical framework aims to test genuine obligation by universalizing it, this way humans can make decisions based on their conscious in order to benefit the greater good.
In this case, this would mean that in such a situation whereby journalists have been granted the permission to endorse political parties such should be universal. If the SABC is allowed to endorse ANC related matters, then Karima and Mde should be granted the same right. Whether or not journalists openly disclose their political views, objectivity within the media remains diluted with what is truth and what is false.