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August 30, 2015 | Last Updated 9:20 PM
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Comment & Analysis
Media Matters: Media distorts

Tawana Kupe

The media’s representation of the debate on the land issue and specifically land redistribution undermines the idea that the media facilitates debates which contribute to participatory policy making that should be a characteristic of a properly working democracy.

The media’s framing of the land issue must delight opponents of land reform as a gift of unsolicited propaganda. The media frames its coverage from two contradictory positions, one that acknowledges that there has been slow progress since 1994, and another that rules out expropriation without compensation.

So on the one hand the problem is acknowledged and sometimes there is a critique what the cause of the failure is but then an option is ruled out completely. It then seems that there is no option but to continue with failed policies.

The media also tends to demonise proponents of expropriation without compensation, in particular Julius Malema, the person it has designated as the poster boy for failed policies that should never ever be adopted. Sometimes I think if Malema did not exist, the media would invent him. So contrary to the accusation that it is the ANC that created Malema the truth might be that it is some in the ANC and the media.

There is of course also the convenient scarecrow called Zimbabwe’s failed “land grab” and personified in an ogre called “Mad Bob” Mugabe. It is often conveniently forgotten that Zimbabwe did follow a failing policy called willing seller willing buyer for at least 10 years.

It is also often not properly researched how other policies were followed in Zimbabwe before the “land grab”. Framing of the land issue is without any nuance and without any historical context.

There are no references to other land reform processes in Africa (because SA is not part of Africa despite the name!) and in any case anything that happened north of the Limpopo cannot happen here because we have a strong constitution and an independent judiciary.

But in the same media there is alarm being raised by threats to the Constitution and ample coverage of civil society organisations created to defend the Constitution, promote the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.

While it is correct for the media to sound the alarm about failed and failing policies, there is a world of a difference with scare-mongering. It is not the role of the media to whip up fears, reinforce prejudices and leave audiences with a sense of gloom and doom. The role of the media is a more subtle and sophisticated one of framing issues in ways that allow for a diversity of voices to engage in processes of continuously and robustly debating efforts aimed at seeking solutions to what appear to be intractable problems of society.

It would be useful for the public if the media did not just repeat that land ownership is racially skewed and that beneficiaries of land reform have apparently turned productive farmland to waste but to contextualise the racial imbalance and the apparent failures through a historical analysis that suggests a way for the future. It is important to get to how the racial skew happened. And to ask how white farmers became so productive that it seems that commercial farming is ingrained in their genes!

Such an approach will move away from the race dilemma and policy bind – whites have all of the productive land and some must be taken but with compensation (although the funds needed for compensation are staggering) and blacks who get land should be as productive as the white farmers and must pay for the land or it is a race land grab ala Zimbabwe.

It will also be useful for the media to place land reform in the broader context of economic policies pursued by the post 1994 governments and the global context within which attempts at land reform have been carried out. Such an approach will also move away from the demonisation of those who propose expropriation without compensation and allow instead for an evaluation of such a policy option among other policies.

This more nuanced framing, which places land reform in its local and global context, would allow for a more critical analysis of what seem to be ANC government failures so far. In general the media needs to frame issues in ways that do not confirm its apparent positioning as a fisherman of only the bad news without concealing real and present dangers. The best way is to avoid black and white dichotomies and instead be open to looking at issues in multidimensional ways that allow for different and differing voices.

Current reporting does not allow for genuine debates because it is locked in a binary that has been reached without much analysis.

This binary fits an ideological paradigm that worships private ownership of land for commercial agriculture as the only productive form of land use. Framing issues in binary opposites is ironic because the media’s normative rhetoric is about objectivity and open debate, which go against binaries locked in ideological positions.

It could be argued that it is also a betrayal of the constitutional value of freedom of expression on which media freedom legitimates itself. On land issues it seems as if freedom of expression without being demonised belongs to only those who favour willing seller, willing buyer. The media allows expression of only certain views as the truth, the practical and the sensible, and censors others (on ideological grounds) as absurd and the path to ruin.

Reporting driven by single ideologies is a characteristic of a journalism that does not promote democratic debate. It also contributes to politicians in the ruling party believing the press is embedded with those





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  • Tshepo Moletsane
    Sep 7 2011 1:01PM
Great article, and well put. The reality is that land issues have been at the core of our struggle as a nation for over 300 years. There are generally two perspective and depending on who you interview the responce will differ similarly to ones perspective on Wars of Resistance vs Wars of Dispossession. The truth will also differ based on creationist theory vs evolutionist theory or a period specific period in history. There will come a time when both the media and the judiciary lose their credibility, simply because the will of the people does not find expression in a free democratic society.

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