Globalized media betray democracy in developing world
Boesak comments on the effects of tabloid content in South Africa
The transnational mainstream media no longer serve the interests of democracy and instead protect an unjust status quo, said South African journalist Elna Boesak in her impassioned presentation to The Media Project's Media & Religion conference in Johannesburg.
Boesak, a 25-year veteran of TV news and documentaries, sees this as a major setback in the long-term struggle for human liberty, a struggle that goes far beyond just the right to vote in an election. She says that in post-Apartheid South Africa, the struggle for economic equality must remain an urgent journalistic priority for the media and for Christians working in media.
"The liberation of the media, as was the liberation of the nation, particularly the broadcast media, has been partial, haphazard and evolutionary rather than revolutionary," Boesak said.
The end of Apartheid in 1993 brought political progress to South Africa, and rights of citizenship were extended to all races. It remains one of the highest-income countries on the African continent and enjoys a free press. But South Africa is still a very unequal society, where wealth is distributed along racial lines.
Boesak roots her ideas about democracy, media and equality in Liberation Theology, which holds that God and the Bible demonstrate a preference for the poor. If God has a special concern for the poor, then media should do the same, Boesak argued. The Church's job is then to hold the media accountable in this freedom fight.
"When I say 'liberation struggle,' let's not get all up in arms and think we need to put on our army gear and buy guns," said Boesak. "As the Church, we are in a liberation struggle for the kingdom of God in this world." Apartheid birthed a "lost generation" of media deprived of its right to inform and educate the South African people, she said.
Journalists of this era could not serve democracy since governmental controls reduced journalists to justifiers of the regime. And while South Africa's government no longer represses the news, she says that South African media still fall short.
"For me studying the context in which South African media operates today, fifteen years later, is like looking into a two-way mirror," Boesak stated. "And in many ways it stirs up a deep sense of deja vu."
"We have won the battle on media-freedom legislation, but we are losing the war on democratic transformation within the media."
Boesak now sees a South Africa where globalized media have free reign. Hyper-consumerism dominates, and technology has revolutionized information. This is destructive for citizens of the developing world, she says.
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"The new South African order is still split into a two-tiered structure," Boesak explained. "One tier has a full and expanding range of social and economic amenities, and the other with a declining share of both but also with a growing amount of 'junk food' -- junk entertainment and junk information."
She blames the excess information "junk food," especially in marginalized South African townships, on the tension between media's masters: democracy and what she calls "exploitative capitalism". Media, she says, cannot serve both masters. It has become exploitative as media properties have become concentrated in just a few hands.
"The last time I checked," Boesak remarked, "the people who are deciding on the truth and who are dominating the global media industry were, more or less, 50 white, capitalist, politically conservative males."
Boesak explained that she is not anti-capitalist and certainly not anti-media. She is pro-democracy.
Her concern is that globalized media have given themselves over to profitable practices that unwittingly foster social divisions in countries that cannot afford such conflicts. The media should be providing South Africans with context and analysis, says Boesak, and instead they provide only news about which footballer is marrying which actress.
In a blizzard of junk information, she says, the truth that South Africa's poor masses are still suffering gets lost. Boesak criticized the Church for failing to speak up as media profit from selling shallow and entertaining alternatives to the truth.
The Church should be first to ask questions about how South Africa's information is being constructed, Boesak continued. Questions such as "Who defines and interprets the truth?" and "Who are guarding society's media guardians?" are essential in ensuring that the media will stand on the side of the poor.
"Those who control information set the tone for the voice that speaks in the world," Boesak concluded. "They identify the priorities and interests that 'deserve' attention. In a very real sense, the voice of God has been silenced by the gatekeepers of the media."