Collins Chabane - Inaugural Media Freedom Lecture and Colloquia

31 October 2011

31 October 2011

Programme Director, Chairperson of the Board of the National Library of South Africa, Professor Nkondo
Managing Director of wRite Associates, MS Seakhoa
Press Ombudsman, Mr Tlholwe
Members of the Board
Distinguished guests

I am deeply honoured by the invitation extended by the wRite associates to participate in this inaugural Media Freedom Lecture and Colloquia.

It is my understanding that today’s event is the first in a series of National Days Lectures and Colloquia/Dialogues on key issues or historical events in our nation’s development, discussions designed to highlight critical issues and to stimulate our thinking on how we can move our dynamic society and economy forward.

The initiative and commitment to facilitate robust but also visionary and inspiring reflection and debate has been demonstrated by the composition and contribution of this evening’s eminent panel to this first discussion.

Engagement of this kind is vital to our democracy, as it forms part of the on-going effort to focus the entire nation on issues that are of concern to all of us.

These are issues where we often have to be careful as we navigate the distinction between being diverse in outlook and approach, and being divided along historical or newly invented lines.

Social cohesion, national unity and national interest are not experiences or attributes that are bestowed on a society such as ours. Instead, their attainment is the product of continuous dialogue with its consequences of conflict and concession.

We may have achieved a particular, overarching political settlement in the early Nineties, but discussions continue in different modes and forums on a daily basis on a range of national issues around our key priorities of safety, health, education, employment and rural development. This is the crucible of Working Together.

Media, the subject of this evening’s discussion, are a key witness and player in this national dialogue, as is to be expected in a vibrant democracy such as ours.

Media plays a role entrenched by our Constitution because the architects of our democratic Constitution, most of whom came from progressive movements, insisted on media freedom as a fundamental feature of our new society.

It is therefore appropriate that we participate in this inaugural event, in the month in which we marked National Press Freedom Day.

National Press Freedom Day is a liberated incarnation of Black Wednesday on the 19 of October 1977, when the apartheid regime declared illegal, 19 Black Consciousness organisations, banned two newspapers and detained scores of activists.

We are also gathering here just two days after government’s annual strategic interaction with the national editors led by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, which followed another interaction between President Jacob Zuma and media owners.

In this context, we are inclined to assert without fear of contradiction that media in our country are free and that this freedom is a direct product of the struggle our people waged over centuries and decades against colonialism and apartheid.

Media practitioners and members of the intelligentsia, who sought to mobilise South Africans around the cause for freedom, and raise awareness internationally of the suppression and brutality that confronted us on home soil, shaped this struggle.

On the other hand, this struggle shaped many such practitioners and thinkers and the thought leadership they developed over time inside the country and elsewhere.

South Africa’s liberation struggles, as led and contributed to by thinkers, writers, journalists and other media workers and organisations, date back centuries, as evidenced by contributions by the ruling party’s founding and early leaders such as Charlotte Maxeke, Sol Plaatje, Pixley ka Isaka Seme and John Dube, to name but a few.

South Africa’s turbulent history and the passage from apartheid to democracy has made its people remarkably news hungry, fed by a robust, free and flourishing press.

This is made possible by more than 20 daily and 13 weekly newspapers, most in English.

Some 14.5 million South Africans buy the urban dailies, while community newspapers have a circulation of 5.5 million.

There is also a range of general and specialised news websites which, in terms of the speed and breadth of their coverage, are on a par with the best in the world.

The proliferation of media reflects government’s acceptance of the role that media play in our society in ways that cannot be taken for granted in other parts of our continent or the world at large.

The news mix ranges from profound commentary to an overhang of presentation that appears more entertaining than informative.

Political news often focuses on personality rather than policy, with calls to cynicism rather than calls to action often infused into coverage.

Our constitutional dispensation delivers the facility for the electorate to choose a leadership and set of policies that they believe will take the society forward.

This dispensation places government alongside a range of institutions of oversight created to ensure that all of us live up to the constitutional vision and that government is held to account.

Additionally, a free media is specifically cited as an integral part of our democracy.

All of this suggests that government and the media play crucial roles in upholding and protecting a democratic society. It would be fair to say that in a democratic society the one cannot exist without the other.

Against the background of the historical developments and progress in the country, and bearing in mind international approaches and best practice, further discussion and debate could focus on whether the respective roles are adequately described and delineated.

In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country and the right is commonly subject to limitations, such as on slander, obscenity and incitement to commit a crime.

The right to freedom of speech and expression, is closely related to other rights and may be limited when conflicting with other rights.

In South Africa the right to freedom of expression is expressly limited when it comes to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

The overall legal framework guarantees the right of all South Africans to freedom of expression. However, balancing the different rights in the Constitution against freedom of expression, divergent views as expressed in various court judgments have arisen.

Over the last decade the right to freedom of speech has been rigorously upheld by the courts.

However, several high courts have set major precedents by endorsing the principle of freedom of expression in defamation cases by public figures in the cause of it being in the “in the public interest”.

A major responsibility facing the country is to deal with its dark history in terms of constructing a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society.

This is not just the responsibility of government; media are called upon, in the spirit of the Constitution, to use its influence and resources in helping the country to achieve this important goal.

This government sees freedom of the media as essential to build an open and inclusive information society, and to peace and development in general.

South Africa depends on a free press to be forthright and steadfast in rooting out injustice, campaign for morality and truth, uphold ideals of honesty and transparency in public life and above all, provide the platform for citizens to be informed of events that are inimical to their everyday existence.

This administration is responsive not only to the needs of our people, but also to how we are perceived by the nation, or how our country is perceived by our international counterparts.

Our next general election is just three years away as an important milestone along the road of our democratic development.

This election will coincide with our celebration of 20 Years of Democracy, with a sizeable proportion of the electorate in 2014 being new voters in a democratic dispensation.

In the year after our fifth general elections, we will have the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals, which will be another source of reflection on how we would have fared in two decades of democracy.

Right now, the National Planning Commission is developing Vision 2030, a blueprint for our development over the next 20 years. The plan of which will be released on the 11 of November.

I list these milestones – alongside our growing importance in the international system, to ask to what extent media are guiding South Africans towards these key developments and challenges.

Mobilising the nation in support of our developmental objectives and building faith in public institutions rather than creating a crisis of confidence. This is a challenge to which media could rise with the possible outcome of a vigilant yet motivated and high-achieving society.

Indeed, a motivated, high-performance, united, non-sexist, prosperous South Africa is one that will enable more South Africans to realise their rights under the Constitution than is the case today.

This is the common good; the national interest.

These are issues around which we need to build national morale and confidence, in order to inspire people to become active participants in taking this country further forward from the remarkable progress we have engineered since 1994.

Since 1994, media itself has undergone transformation, but one could ask if more couldn’t be done to enhance the composition of newsrooms and ownership alike to represent the full diversity of South African society.

It is also crucial that media examine and improve the representation of women at all levels within the media industry.

One could also question whether the interplay between international media reporting and by local media is adequately interrogated, and whether the increasingly important role of social and new media in transcending boundaries is sufficiently considered.

We raise these questions in the interest of wishing to assist in the development of our media sector in the same way that we are helping other sectors of our economy and society to develop.

We also raise these questions as the country and the journalism profession in particular is discussing the industry conduct. The recent review of the Press Code of Conduct and the establishment of the Press Council are noted, we await the results of their work with bated breath.

We believe the efficiency of the country’s media sector should reflect our overall development as a country and should establish this sector as a centre of excellence within our economy and our extensive programme of international relations.

We cannot place the nation before the choice of going with the elected government of the day, or with a vigilant media sector.

Our democracy needs both, alongside one another. Robust but respectful! Fearless, but dignified! Always working together!

I thank you 

Issued by: The Presidency

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