South Africa’s print media is failing to empower citizens on corruption

By Vanessa Malila, Rhodes University

The mainstream media can play an important role in fighting corruption. Investigative journalists in South Africa, for instance, helped to expose how the politically connected Gupta family “captured” elements of the governing African National Congress.

As watchdogs of society, the media is well placed to forge social accountability: the collective effort of citizens and civil society in holding governments to account for their management and use of public resources. These groups need to be informed if they’re to succeed.

There are two ways for the media to fulfil its social accountability role. The first is through good investigative journalism. This, as scholar Professor Sheila Coronel has written

exposes not just individual, but also systemic failures. Investigative reports show how individual wrongs are part of a larger pattern of negligence or abuse and the systems that make these possible.

The second is that the media should function as a bridge between governments and citizens. It can provide the public with the information they require to debate and participate in public discussions and processes. This notion is much more aligned to the media’s role as a space for debate and engagement by citizens regarding public and political life. Here, journalism’s function is educational. The public is in the driving seat – but only if they’re a well informed citizenry able to participate in decisions about how public resources are managed.

So how is South Africa’s media doing when it comes to fulfilling this second role? Not very well, according to research conducted for the Public Service Accountability Monitor at Rhodes University. The accountability monitor forms part of the School of Journalism & Media Studies and aims to ensure the right to social accountability is universally realised.

Our findings reveal gaps in the media’s work. Journalists assume that merely reporting on scandals, corrupt officials or maladministration justifies their role as watchdogs. Instead, mainstream print media coverage on service delivery and public resource management normalises corruption because it reports in an episodic fashion, focusing on events rather than systemic failures.

This normalisation of corruption and public service failure means that media coverage doesn’t result in actual accountability.

Analysing coverage

The Eastern Cape is a troubled province. It’s home to 7 million people and is the poorest in South Africa. It measures badly against almost all metrics. More than half of the province’s schools have no water; 73% have no proper toilets. None of this information is unknown: there are daily stories in the press about the poor state of education in the province. Blame is apportioned and fingers are pointed. But little changes.

The research conducted by Public Service Accountability Monitor looked at coverage of education in the Eastern Cape by mainstream print media between 2005 and 2016. The articles analysed provide a glimpse of the type of “balanced” and episodic reporting that proliferates South Africa’s mainstream press.

Rather than connecting incidences of corruption or maladministration to citizens’ daily lives, the coverage simply alerts readers to the event with no context and no clear lines of accountability. This is inadequate for providing citizens with the information they require to become active participants in holding public officials in the education sector to account.

Instead, coverage of maladministration follows a formulaic pattern: an event is reported and a government official is asked to comment. There’s little or no investigation of how this maladministration was allowed to occur and how it will be prevented from happening again.

This type of coverage also normalises corruption and public resource management crises in the public sector. This is because it reports on these issues in much the same way as it reports other events, producing journalism which fails to act as the fourth estate because it fails to hold public officials to higher standards than other citizens.

The media needs to help people understand that poor service delivery is a result of systemic weaknesses. And these weaknesses result from the way in officials handle resources that actually belong to the public. The stories in our sample lack depth, context and a critical understanding of the way in which individual events are related to a bigger system of public resource management.

For example, when reporting on education infrastructure – the kind of problem
that can result in learners being hurt or even killed – the coverage is consistently about the event. Journalists writing the articles fail to ask why a department with infrastructure problems consistently under-spends its vast budget.

More importantly, who is responsible for such under-spending and mismanagement? Journalists fail to understand where weaknesses in the public resource management system are resulting in maladministration, lack of service delivery and corruption.

Strengthening the media

So how can the media’s contribution towards its role as a “bridge” between government and citizens be strengthened?

One strategy proposed is to build better relationships with civil society organisations that have spent years developing expertise in the area.

Why not draw on the voices of civil society? These are the groups implementing advocacy programmes, conducting research and engaging at a deeper level on how to improve public resource management and curb corruption.

The ConversationBoth the media and civil society need to rethink the way they understand their roles when it comes to social accountability – as well as their roles in relation to each other. By drawing on the strengths of both civil society and the media, the potential for social accountability practice, and through this greater service delivery, can be improved.

Vanessa Malila, Public Service Accountability Monitor: Advocacy Impact Programme Head, Rhodes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Award-winning journalism hitting hard in social accountability

September 2017 – Malawian journalist Alick Ponje received the inaugural Southern Africa Media Award in Social Accountability Reporting during the Telkom-Highway Africa Awards Gala Dinner held yesterday evening at the 21st annual Highway Africa conference, the world’s largest gathering of African journalists, at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

Presented by Highway Africa and the Partnership for Social Accountability (PSA) Alliance, the award recognises journalists from Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia whose investigative reporting on social accountability has contributed to improved services in public health and agriculture, particularly in the areas of HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and food security.

Ponje’s article ‘Private Hospitals Breach Government Pact’, published in the Malawi News, a newspaper of the Times Group, on 4 February 2017, documents how privately run clinics and mobile clinics are breaching their contracts with the Ministry of Health. The clinics order drugs from the district health office and also demand fees from patients for under-five and maternal health services, which are supposed to be free. The situation has reportedly contributed to the depletion of drugs for publically run health facilities.

“Ponje successfully draws upon and weaves together multiple sources of information, including documentation from the district council, input of officials during council proceedings, and interviews with the Ministry of Health,” stated Highway Africa’s Director Chris Kabwato. “His reporting provides insight into a critical issue of social accountability in the use of public resources, which has affected both health budgets as well as the provision of affordable services.”

 “The news media have a critical role to play in holding governments to account for the provision of quality public services,” said Rachel Gondo, Senior Programme Officer at Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM). “Ponje has clearly shed the spotlight on the need for governments to closely monitor and regulate the services provided by privately-run but publically-funded health facilities, both in Malawi and across southern Africa.”

SAfAIDS’ Deputy Director Rouzeh Eghtessadi applauded Ponje for interrogating the provision of sexual and reproductive health services at local clinics. “We need more journalists who are willing to delve into the real-life challenges people face in accessing health services, in an unsensational and discriminatory manner. Without such reporting, mismanagement of scarce public resources goes undetected, resulting in a decline in the quality and effectiveness of healthcare services.”

Ponje, 28, now a special projects reporter at the Nation Publication Group, joined the mainstream media in 2014 after graduating as a teacher from the University of Malawi. “Receiving this award is going to motivate me. It shows that people are recognising the efforts we put into our work. I’m in the early years of my career and this will give me the confidence to work on these issues [of social accountability] going forward,” said Ponje.

Ponje applauded Highway Africa and PSA Alliance for initiating the award. “With awards like this, journalists will be more motivated to track how public funds are being utilised. And, at the end of the day, some of these problems might be history.”

Partnership for Social Accountability Alliance is led by ActionAid International together with Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF), and SAfAIDS, and supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Southern Africa Media Award in Social Accountability Reporting

Highway Africa, together with the Partnership for Social Accountability (PSA) Alliance, invites journalists in Southern Africa to apply for the inaugural Southern Africa Media Award in Social Accountability Reporting 2017.

The award recognises two journalists from the PSA Alliance’s project countries – Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia – whose investigative reporting on social accountability contributes to improved public health and agriculture in the following categories:
• HIV and Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR)
• Food Security

Applications will be examined by a panel of media experts in the region and two winners will be awarded at the Highway Africa Conference to be held on 31 August – 1 September 2017. The award includes a prize of USD 250, plus travel and accommodation to the 2017 Highway Africa Conference.

Deadline for Submission – 15 August 2017

Criteria
• Applicants must be based in Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique or Zambia.
• Work must be published between July 2016 and July 2017.
• Print, Radio, TV, Multimedia and Photo journalism are admitted.
• If submitting multiple entries either in the same category or across multiple categories, complete an entry for each story to a total maximum of two entries.

How to apply – Candidates can submit their applications here