Celebrating 25 years of media freedom

By Phumla Williams

Those who were fortunate enough to live through our democratic change in the months leading up to April 1994, literally saw history unfolding before their very eyes.

The birth of our democracy brought many changes and ushered in an era of free and independent media.

We should, however, never forget that we come from a history of exclusion and media restrictions. Before 1994, our society was characterised by a culture of secrecy, disinformation and restrictions on press freedom.

Many of the freedoms that we today take for granted were unheard of, and the notion of a free media seemed fanciful.

The democratic government knew instinctively that our new democratic order had to be built on a commitment to freedom, democracy and the free flow of information. Key to this was a free media that our founding fathers knew was the lifeblood of any democracy.

Since 1994, our story of democracy is in many ways mirrored by the story of the free media over the past 25 years.

Just as the country has evolved, so too has the media. What has been particularly noticeable is the rise of community and regional media across print, radio and TV.

Similarly, the changing character of newsrooms has resulted in a plurality of views that better reflect the face of our nation.

At the birth of our democracy, the internet in South Africa was still in its infancy, and traditional mediums such as print, radio and TV reigned supreme.

Today, however, the media landscape is far different. The growth of online and social media has disrupted centuries-old industries, and media like the rest of society is constantly redefining itself.

What will nonetheless remain constant is our commitment to a free and vibrant media. It is also vitally important that we commemorate milestones such as these so that we may jointly assess the state of our media.

Unlike in the past where the apartheid government clamped down on the media in October 1977 and banned the World and the Weekend World newspapers, our government cherishes a robust free media. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press and other media is enshrined in our Constitution.

It is important that the media continues to shine a light on the challenges, successes, and the hopes and dreams of our young nation.

Our society has been made stronger by the media, and our journey from the heart of darkness to a vibrant democracy has been captured in the words, pictures, film and voice of the media.

However, much remains to be done if we are to build the nation of our collective dreams. The journey ahead is bound to be daunting and there will be times when we will falter. As we move into the next phase of our democracy we will need the collective wisdom of all role-players in society.

Collectively, we should do more to realise our vision of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society which respects human dignity and rights as envisioned in both the Constitution and National Development Plan.

Phumla Williams is the Acting Director-General at the Government Communication and Information System.