I dislike the Russia Today (RT) television channel, as it is the propaganda tool of a dangerous and corrupt autocrat. It shows little respect for the truth, and is happy to propagate the most appalling lies. But everyone now and then I would turn to it – briefly – to hear how the Russian government was seeing the world and get an alternative – and sometimes challenging – view.
I am disappointed that it has dropped out of the DSTV bouquet, as we are left with less choice, a diminished diversity, a bouquet dominated by the mainstream Western channels, with Al Jazeera the only other voice.
We want Russians to hear what the rest of the world is saying, so we condemn Putin when he shuts down media outlets he does not like. We should not do the same. If we want to understand Putin’s thinking, RT is useful. When we choose sides, we want to ensure we are fully appraised of the facts, the arguments and the counter-arguments, and you cannot do that by only listening to one side.
We want media that challenges us, and does not just give us news and information that makes us feel safe and comfortable. We want argument, debate, disagreement, and we want it to informed and informative. We don’t want just one narrative in a world of rich and competing narratives.
Incidentally, Ukraine has shut down pro-Russian outlets in recent years, but that drew less coverage and commentary. Russia’s treatment of media and journalists is among the worst in the world so you cannot compare that to Ukraine’s handling of media, but it is far from ideal.
During wartime, these information channels are a key part of the battle, and both sides tend to exaggerate, distort and report selectively. We learnt during the US invasion of Iraq and the “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco that Western media in a time of war can also let the temptations of patriotism blind them to truth and reality.
If America had heard some voices from outside of the mainstream echo-chamber, maybe they would have avoided the tragedy that was to become the Iraq invasion. And the Afghanistan occupation.
On the other hand, it is worth remembering that it was the freedom of the US media to expose the folly and horror of the Vietnam War that helped bring it to an end. There are few other countries that would have honoured those who published the details of the Mai Lai massacre or the Pentagon Papers, showing their own armed forces in a terrible light. That could not happen in Russia, and the US was the stronger for having allowed it. (Though one has to say that they did not learn the lessons.)
All media has its prejudices and blind-spots, but that is different from the deliberate distortion of the truth. At least the likes of CNN, the BBC, the New York Times or the Guardian have a commitment to aim for the truth and they have codes of conduct which compel them to try and offer balance. At least they aspire to fact-based reporting and are prepared to correct themselves when they get it wrong. They don’t always succeed, for sure, but that is different from channels like Fox News and RT, who have no hesitation in propagating lies. In fact, untruth may be their dangerous purpose.
We have to be alive to the dangers of disinformation and see how it has poisoned US politics and endangered lives during the pandemic. We cannot be blind to this, as much as we want and enjoy maximum freedom of expression.
The problem is this: we have systems in place in South Africa to tackle disinformation, at least in traditional media. If you want a television licence, you have to subject yourself to the Broadcast Complaints Commission and their code. Our channels are free to broadcast what they wish, but if I believe that one of our television channels has got something wrong, or been unfair or unbalanced, I can complain, get a hearing and tackle them head-on. They can be ordered to correct it, apologise or not to do it again. These systems are not faultless, and our regulator is not as strong as one would want it to be, but they do establish a value system in which media can be called to account to show that they took reasonable steps to ascertain the facts and report them fairly.
The US used to have a fairness doctrine enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) since 1949. Broadcasters had to devote some time to controversial matters of public interest and provide contrasting views. The outlets had enormous scope in how they did this, but they would be in danger of losing their licences if they did not pay attention to balance and fairness.
The FCC scrapped that rule in 1987 during Ronald Reagan’s presidential tenure and his onslaught on regulation generally, saying they were expanding free expression. That opened the way to the rightwing talk radio phenomenon and later Fox News, now that they could say what they like without any attempt to be fair.
In South Africa, the rules about fairness, balance and accuracy do not apply to the international channels on the satellite bouquet. So if the channels’ home countries do not have rules, then they are free to do what they like.
So, while we may welcome different voices from around the globe, there is a danger when some of them deliberately purvey falsehoods. It is worth remembering how dangerous this can be. The falsehood that the last US election was stolen led to the January 6 attempted insurrection and continues to threaten US democracy. Various myths about the Coronavirus vaccine has led to a hesitancy that has cost many lives. The falsehood that 100% of our restaurant service staff are foreign has fed a xenophobia which has already cost lives.
We have to counter malicious and dangerous disinformation. We have to encourage media with a commitment to truth. But not by silencing voices that we need to hear.
*Anton Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression (www.freeexpression.org.za) and Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University.……