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Western bias in South African media threatens press freedom – Mail and Guardian

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In his article “Killer Prince Harry shines light on bias towards the West”, published on 9 January 2023 in the Mail & Guardian, Imraan Buccus hit the nail on the head in exposing the biased nature of our media. 
Indeed, South Africa’s commercial media has been found wanting on numerous contentious discourses — whether it’s nationalisation or land expropriation, the media sides with the West and unfairly drives its narrative. The latest fad is its portrayal of the war in Ukraine — or shall we call it “the Russian invasion”, as the media has decided to dub this conflict.
In my latest research paper New features of media imperialism: The South African online media and the coverage of the Ukrainian war, where I employed content analysis to examine the coverage of the war by five of South Africa’s biggest online news publications (News24, IOL, TimesLive, Citizen.co.za and BusinessTech) between January and February 2022, media bias is palpable. By relying on Western sources, this media invariably exports Western norms, standards, hegemonic narrative and worldview. This finding can be extended to the broader South African news media.  
When it comes to wars in particular, the way the media reports evokes the old saying “truth is the first casualty in war”. A cursory glance at headlines on the Ukrainian war and the media is reduced to an unlikely platform for Nato propaganda.
The paper analysed 496 news articles found during the period under review by using the key search phrase “Ukraine war”. The paper also employed qualitative content analysis to probe elements that are political and theoretical in nature while using thematic and framing content approaches to analyse and interpret data to gain further insight into the coverage of the war. As to be expected, most of the articles were negative with the main concern being the impact on the economy.
The construction of the West’s dominant views was discernible in articles. At the heart of the framing of the war was the reliance on Western newswires such as Bloomberg, Reuters and Agence France-Presse (AFP) to report on the war. Over 80% of the stories were sourced from these agencies. Less than 15% of the articles originated from South African newsrooms. Even articles focusing on South Africa relied on data gathered by Reuters.
Linked to this are the sources of news that, predictably, are largely Western — almost 60%. These included Western businesses and analysts, public and private institutions, such as Goldman Sachs Group, and political leaders such as Joe Biden (United States president), Ben Wallace (United Kingdom Defence Secretary) and Olaf Scholz (German chancellor).
While it would be expected that among the major frames from the coverage of a war would be the “conflict” and “human impact” frames, surprisingly it was the “economic consequences” frame that proved to be the second most important issue. 
Of course, this is driven by the Western media and its sources. Perhaps this gives away the real rationale behind the war, which others have argued to be a fundamentally economic war. The South African media audience is therefore subjected to this framing. 
Expectedly, the most important emerging theme from the coverage is “Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”. Before the current war, scholars such as Katharina Wiedlack had argued that Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, were being portrayed “as backwards, undemocratic and as a threat to the US” in contrast to the characterisation of the US “as a united, modern and progressive nation”. In fact, Czech scholar, Zina Stovickova posits that numerous studies found that the Western media negatively portrayed Putin, Russia and the country’s policies. 
This theme confirms these assertions. The South African online media has fallen for the Western narrative by characterising Russia as an “unprovoked” aggressor. Many articles contained a condescending tone against Russia and failed to present an alternative perspective and a balanced view on the war. Instead, it is presented as a foregone conclusion that Russia and Putin were to blame for the “unprovoked invasion” and that this was an act of insanity, unlike any action of the civilised West. No historical perspective was presented, such as Nato’s expansionary role which triggered this war. 
“Sanctions against Russia” is another theme in the coverage used by the West as a weapon. This frame has been employed by the West against its ideological foes such as Cuba, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. This weapon is unleashed against Russia without any critique from our media.
Consumers of South African media are fed the Western perspective of events. Of course, this does not denote lack of agency by consumers and the inability to read media texts from an opposite perspective. After all, consumers do not inevitably and uncritically absorb media messages.
How the South African media frames the Ukrainian war can be best understood in the context of the concept of media imperialism. This denotes the operation of the modern media to create, maintain and expand systems of domination. This concept is useful in articulating the manner in which global media systems operate as “transnational agents”, either as corporations or media industries, to direct the flow of media products on an international scale. 
While old features of media imperialism, such as the control of ownership structure and distribution by Western powers are waning, the emergence of platform imperialism, as reflected by the US Big Tech giants, combined with a difficult economic environment, compels the local media to rely on Western news agencies for content of international news. 
Even for developments that are within the African continent, due to lack of financial resources, national news agencies are forced to rely on Western news agencies for content. This includes the use of Western media platforms such as its global networks, newspapers and newswires as sources of news. In this way, dominant Western views are perpetuated and in the process hegemony is constructed. 
Not that there is anything inherently wrong with using the Western media to understand global events, especially those that are inaccessible to the South African media, however, it is crucial to ensure balance by presenting both sides of the story. 
Balanced reporting would be in line with the values enshrined in the country’s constitution, and this is where partnerships with non-Western media partners becomes important. For example, in the context of Brics emerging as a new geopolitical power bloc, China has sought to expand its investment in media platforms in Africa through, inter alia, China Central Television, opening bureaus in Johannesburg and Nairobi, Kenya, for the English-language edition of China Daily.
This media flow between China and Africa has not been one-directional as witnessed through Naspers’s investment in the media platform Tencent in China. Yet China is portrayed as a new colonising force in Africa when, on the contrary, it is the predominance of north–south flow of information that continues unabated.
It is unsurprising therefore that not a single news article in the study was framed or influenced by the presence of Chinese media in South Africa. Instead of seeking to build an alternative source of news, the South African media followed its Western partners in muting alternative views by banning Russia Television. 
This ban, and the South African media’s reliance on Western media sources, has implications for media freedom, freedom of expression and journalism. It not only obscures the truth while driving a single narrative and propaganda, but also demonstrates the continuous evolution of media imperialism.
Mandla J Radebe is an associate professor in the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Strategic Communication and director of the university’s Centre for Data and Digital Communications. He is the author of Constructing Hegemony: The SA Commercial Media and the (Mis)Representation of Nationalisation (UKZN Press) and The Lost Prince of the ANC: The Life and Times of Jabulani Nobleman ‘Mzala’ Nxumalo (Jacana Media).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.
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