Book Review: Herman Wasserman’s Media, Geopolitics, and Power: A View from the Global South.

By Yipeng Xi

The over two decades of the abolishment of the apartheid regime and the development of democracy in South Africa have been the subject of countless volumes and research articles, ranging from historical overviews and technical examinations to sociological inquiries and ethnographic reports. Herman Wasserman’s Media, Geopolitics and Power, the seventh volume in the Geopolitics of Information series published by the University of Illinois Press, makes a point of taking both a step back toward the broader scope of journalism studies and a step forward toward the rigorous application of a political economy perspective to the analysis of the distance that South Africa media has traveled from the apartheid era.

Wasserman focuses on the relationship between media and political power from the apartheid era to a new democracy, a process that brings together long-term efforts at restructuring media ownership (e.g. more share of Black capital), bridging the gap between western and African’s views on professional ideologies and media ethics as well as building new geopolitical relationships with other countries, especially with the BRICS.

Over and against the one-dimension fixation on the transition to democracy from the perspective of Global North, the book firstly argues that the technological narrative that media would move from repression under an authoritarian government to constitutionally guaranteed freedom, from isolation during the apartheid years to the globalization of media capital and content is a biased perspective. With the reference to history, Wasserman reaches back to the early years after 1994 when South Africa embraced the democracy but is dedicated to a narrower observation on how the ideologies, ownership, normative frameworks in apartheid-era still affect the journalism practice and media content in the post-apartheid. Although there is a more balanced racial makeup of owners and editorial staffs, the print media’s class base remains the same as the apartheid and media continue to attract lucrative White, or at least affluent Black, elite market (p.20). The boom of tabloid and community newspapers in the post-apartheid, which enjoy a large market share among the black, working class and other minority groups, further reflects the elitist inclination when print media positions their commercial market. Therefore, even though media has appealed to remove the oppressive sets of laws and allow for the self-regulatory regime, the similar ownership, and commercial market shift suggest that media may still serve for the similar elite audiences rather than the broad public. In this sense, rather than adopt the dominant approach of transitology blindly, which assumes that the practice of democracy would be promoted by the free and independent media, Wasserman believes that the notion of “elite renewal” or “elite continuity” suggested by Colin Sparks would be better suitable in analyzing the transformation of the media market in South Africa.

Apart from looking at the shifts in South Africa from the perspective of structural conditions, a more cultural approach which examines the media’s role in the new democracy should not be neglected. From this approach, Wasserman reveals that media is the site where representations of identity, language and value system are heatedly contested. He further discloses the alternative perspectives on media ethics and the future of journalism in the view of Global South. Most often, the liberal-democratic “watchdog,” “independence” and “objectivity” monitorial paradigm has been regarded as the universal values for the norm of journalism practice. However, this idea is inherently local in that it drives from particular epistemological traditions rooted in Western thought and experience (p.87). Considering the material conditions within which African journalists work and communal orientation of local society, the notion of “Afriethics” which emphasizes the national unity and the media’s responsibility for unethical actions more is suggested (p.90). This notion, which is similar to the collaborative developmental paradigm, has been criticized for lapsing into cultural essentialism and exceptionalism.

Given that neither two paradigms above are appropriate to define the role of media in South Africa, Wasserman stipulates that the dilemma between ‘local’ and ‘global’ can only be solved by an ethnographic understanding of “how ethical concepts are interpreted, applied, and given meaning within specific, concrete, geohistorical contexts” (p.98). Such an approach may also help in understanding the notion of “crisis” which has been treated as a universalizing discourse which implies the development of future journalism. For one thing, the crisis has a different driver in different contexts (p.116). For another, as can be seen in the case of Panama Paper leaks, journalism study can no longer operate within the national or cultural boundary (p.120). Therefore, as critical journalism study advocates, the local and the global should be seen as mutually interdependent and provide a perspective from which notions of the “future” and “crisis” of journalism could be considered more holistically.

The first two parts of the book summarized in the above illustrate the local contestations and how South African media reacts to the global information flow. The media sphere in South Africa itself, as a case, could also represent the interdependency and interrelationship in global media studies, which can be revealed by the country’s relationship to the BRICS groups of states, especially China. As the media market opens to the world in the post-apartheid, the media content, ownership and control have been affected by the force of globalization.

Correspondingly, Chinese media capital has flourished into South Africa and put strategic efforts on promoting its “soft power”. Rather than regarding South African as passive receivers, Wasserman claims that it’s the ongoing process of globalized flows and contraflows in which South Africa media are active participants (p.139), because the actual influence of Chinese media on people’s values, journalistic practices, and news discourses is still relatively limited. Bearing long-term oppression of civil rights and freedom of expression, South Africans have cast considerable doubts on any media contents that are perceived as undemocratic and propagandistic (p.150). This further reminds us that the global and the local are not separate from each other. The effect of global communication on local audiences is always based on the histories, existing values and daily practices in a specific context.

Consistent in its critical emphasis on the uncertainty and ambivalence to South Africa’s transition to democracy, Wasserman’s book has offered an alternative narrative on global media in an era of ongoing but uneven technological development, geopolitical change, democratic shifts and social upheaval around the world. He further opposes the academic politics which demonstrates “the West as theory, the East as evidence” by illustrating that the notions such as “transitology”. “watchdog” and “crises in journalism” suggested in western experience are not appropriate in explaining the cases in South Africa. Here, he does not mean to indicate that those western notions are wrong, or claim that media study in South Africa should keep its independence and close down opportunities for dialogue.

Rather, the African cases should not be regarded as ‘inferior’ to the western, nor should the western notions be viewed as the universal without a deep and ethnographic analysis on the history, geopolitics, culture and existing power structures in a given context. This reveals the long-standing asymmetrical distribution of power in scholarly organizations and regimes of scientific truth (p.43). Global media scholarship that includes African studies should be offered the equal status in the process of knowledge production. Only through the collaboration and mutual respect between the Global North and South can the challenges to global communication be addressed.

Regarding the constructive criticism, I would like to have seen a more microscopic study on how ordinary African people use mobile phones and other digital media to entertain, socialize and connect themselves with the people both from the global north and global south. And how the changing ownership of telecommunications in the post-apartheid affects the people’s habits of using such digital media. Additionally, as the crises in journalism is the result of booming digital media. I hope that the author could address the impact of social media and citizen journalism on mainstream South African news by asking those engaged directly or indirectly in the field of professional journalism for their opinions and perceptions, as what the author has done when he analyzes the impact of Chinese capital on the norms and values of journalism practice in South Africa. I would also like to have seen more comparative studies on how other countries from global south react to the inclusion of global media capital, and whether or not there’s a similar influence on journalism practice between capital from the global north and global south. Lastly, as the bigger picture portrayed by Wasserman in this book is the inequality of knowledge production between the south and the north, Wasserman gives one of the possible solutions by borrowing Comaroff and Commaroff’s (2012) opinions:

“it is regions in the South that tend first to feel the concrete effects of worldhistorical processes as they play themselves out, thus to prefigure the future of the former metropole.”

In the next sentence, Wasserman further argues that:

“if you want to find out what the effects of climate change will be in the North, speak to the farmers in African villages who are already struggling with its impact on their livelihoods.” (P.67)

Although Wasserman stands against the statement “the West as theory, the East as evidence”, it seems that the global south cannot change its fate as being regarded as the source of evidence and raw materials for the knowledge production in the global north. Apart from the ethical concern which has relatively weak constraints, what can scholars do to keep the global south both as an “evidence”, and as a “theory”? I expect to acquire more insights from the author.

Overall, from the perspective of economic structure, local culture, and new geopolitical relations, Wasserman shines a bright light on the changing media’s role and journalism practice during the transition to democracy in South Africa. The book also inspires us to reflect the contestations between the global and the local, the asymmetrical status of knowledge production between the north and the south. It’s a must-read for all who want to understand South Africa’s embrace of democracy and the political economy of communication therein.

Contributors

Yipeng Xi

Yipeng Xi is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore. His research focuses on digital culture and digital activism in authoritarian regimes. Currently, his work on citizen engagement, public opinion and collective movement has appeared in several Chinese-language and English journals.

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