Image: Markus Winkler (Unsplash)
In early February 2021, the British communications regulator – Ofcom revoked the broadcasting license of CGTN (China Global Television Network) an English language news channel based in Beijing. This came after an investigation concluded that there was no oversight of the media output by Star License Media Limited which was the license holder in the UK for CGTN. A request to transfer the license to an entity called China Global Television Network Corporation (CGTNC) was also denied on the basis that the majority shareholder is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which is in violation of the United Kingdom’s (UK) regulations, as channels in the UK are not allowed to be controlled by political parties. A few days later China banned the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) World News channel because the organisation failed to broadcast news that is fair and impartial and the channel undermined China’s national interests and ethnic solidarity.
This exchange between the British regulator and Chinese state could be reduced to a diplomatic spat between two global powers. It has however, highlighted an important conversation around news independence and credibility. The independence and impartiality of news media and media outlets is considered a key pillar of any democratic society. At the heart of journalistic integrity is the ability to report on issues without favour and to hold those in power accountable. In fact, news broadcasting is viewed as a key mechanism to keep everyone in check, from political elites to large corporations.
When discussing the freedom of media, the conversation tends to focus on the relationship between broadcasters and the state. Most media freedom indexes analyse traditional forms of media and indicators such as the level of involvement of governments, the safety of journalists, and the level of censorship. These are very important aspects to consider when trying to evaluate the degree to which news remains impartial to political interest groups. In Zimbabwe, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who has been outwardly critical of President Emerson Mnangagwa and the local police, was arrested 3 times in a space of 6 months. This is a clear illustration of when the state is able to use government resources to try and limit the participation of critical voices in its society. These events are definitely a cause for concern. When states can imprison journalists or ban news agencies and channels at will, the ability to report the news neutrally and fairly becomes compromised.
Despite these obvious barriers which can inhibit independent and impartial news broadcasting and publication, what happens when the media is trusted to be free and autonomous? In the last 5 years the United States (US) would represent a good case study of this with many of its major news outlets accused of being either pro-Republican or pro-Democrat. It is commonly accepted that journalists and the media in the US can operate in relative freedom without fear of suppression or violence. Why then would a particular outlet favour a political group over the other? To understand this, critical questions must be asked about the context in which news is produced. There are many aspects to this, like questioning who decides what stories go on the bulletin this week or what inherent bias does the reporter covering the story have? These may seem like unimportant details or irrelevant when discussing news media, because what does it matter if journalists are able to freely report on issues and regulators exist to ensure the independence of news agencies?
While most major news broadcasters have gained reputable reputations for independent and fair reporting, they are not immune to the bias and unconscious prejudices which exist in society. There are clear differences in reporting standards when race or ethnicity are involved, for example the discrepancies between the representation of right-wing groups and terrorism in news media. Terrorism is often linked to black or middle eastern identities and religious affiliations – the use of the term “Islamist” has become synonymous with terrorism. Conversely the ethnic and religious origins of right-wing groups are hardly ever investigated in news reports. That is not to say we should start essentialising such characteristics, but it is worth highlighting the intrinsic associations made when these news stories are reported.
There are many aspects to consider when analysing the independence of media, some are obvious while others may be more subtle. Increasingly the debate around fair and unbiased reporting is starting to include the “non-traditional” indicators. The conversation around media freedom and independence must expand to consider the role that non-state actors and society itself, plays in the framing of the news and news reports. It is always important to read a news report with a critical mind and ask yourself questions about who the experts being quoted are. What images have been included? What does the use of certain language and terms convey about the story being covered? Many African leaders and academics have led the call for freedom and independence of the press. It is important that those traditions are kept alive on the continent.
Kaamillah Soeker has recently completed a Masters Degree at the Wits School of Governance, in Public and Development Management. She is interested in Policy Analysis of South Africa and the African continent.