Joel Netshitenzhe - Media and society in transition panel discussion

19 October 2005

19 October 2005

Why media freedom matters and how it relates to questions of national and public interest

I should start off by congratulating SABC, SANEF and the University of Limpopo for this initiative, particularly on the occasion of the anniversary of the banning of newspapers under apartheid 28 years ago.

This Conference is important because it helps practitioners in the media and society at large, including government, to reflect on critical questions about freedom, questions that do not lend themselves to mathematical equations and precise answers.

I suppose we all agree that, in a democratic society, the question of media freedom and how it relates to issues of public and national interest is one about intellectual and ideological contestation; it's about interest and self-interest often concealed behind generalisations about human rights; and it's also about nuance in application of principle rather than about the principle as such.

In an evolving democracy such as ours, it should be expected that in such debates, we will oscillate between extremes in search of a reasonable range. We cannot, in any case, hope to achieve a state of rest, otherwise our democracy will atrophy.


Human civilisation has evolved, in terms of social organisation, to identify principles that are universal in the framework they define, but principles that find concrete expression in given polities. In other words, the restatement of principle does not resolve the detailed matters of their concrete manifestation in day-to-day life.

In our situation, these principles are found in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, particularly freedom of expression and of the media. One can also assert without fear of contradiction that, in actual practice, a defining texture of our democracy has been to allow the creativity and talent of writers and producers free reign.

These rights and this democratic culture no one can take away from us, no matter how powerful. This is because, among other reasons, media freedom is not a post-1994 invention, but a product of struggle. From John Tengo Jabavu to Ruth First to Steve Biko to Percy Qoboza, an integral part of our struggle has been this pursuit of freedom of expression.

Yet, we have to accept that, as with any rights, there are corresponding responsibilities and limits. Without these, anarchy would be the order of the day. Our Constitution, for instance, prohibits propagation of racism and hate speech.

We will all agree that, in the First Decade of Freedom, through legislation, court rulings and in the praxis of public bodies, we have as a society allowed free space for journalists to practice their trade without undue interference.

There have of course been niggling questions and expressions of concern on many issues. To quote two examples: On the one hand, individuals in positions of authority – those in the glare of public scrutiny – in both public and private sectors, have justifiably complained about how media has handled the question of defamation, especially in instances where matters are being investigated by security agencies, with individuals often pronounced guilty until proven otherwise. This is a matter that definitely requires further reflection.

On the other hand, media has complained about provisions such as Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act which deals with the obligation of citizens to give evidence when so required by the courts. As government, we have found some agreement with the media on this issue, that, for journalists, this should be used as a last resort; but there has not been, and I dare say, there will never be full consensus on the matter. This is not unique to South Africa.


What is somewhat unique with our democracy is that we have in a complex period of transition relied on openness and transparency to perpetuate a social order in gestation.

Why is this, and why does media freedom matter in our transforming society – why is media freedom in the national interest?

The first of the reasons is that media freedom matters for its own sake. Such is the nature of the human spirit that it needs space for self-expression. To try and circumscribe it is to court revolt.

Secondly, media freedom matters because access to information is the life-blood of our project of reconstruction and development. If we were to take the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative that government announced last week, to raise the rate of growth to 6% in an inclusive manner, as an example, it becomes patently clear that provision of information is critical to its success.

The private sector has a critical role to play in this initiative, and they need to know what new vistas have opened up for investment and public-private partnerships. The Second Economy communities need to know about opportunities that have opened up for micro-credit and in public works projects; they also need to share information among themselves about their needs and the skills available to deal with them; and government needs better information about socio-economic dynamics in these communities. In all this, the media has an important role to play in providing accurate information and analysis.

Thirdly, to understand how repressive institutions of apartheid operated, the better to uproot any networks that may still be burrowing in our midst, we need to shine the light of freedom in the dark corners of such networks. As such, from this point of view, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have been about reconciliation, but it was also an important process to identify the institutions and the methods of the repressive machineries of the apartheid state. Media reporting and analysis were critical during this process; and the media continues to be a critical institution in dealing with this challenge.

Fourthly, we need to acknowledge that, even in the new era, temptations to arrogance and corruption exist. Media has a critical role to play in exposing such practices and thus contribute to building a society envisioned in our Constitution.

Fourthly, we need to acknowledge that, even in the new era, temptations to arrogance and corruption exist. Media has a critical role to play in exposing such practices and thus contribute to building a society envisioned in our Constitution.


However, positing media freedom only in constitutional and legal terms is inadequate. We need to examine other, and perhaps more fundamental, expressions of media freedom.

One of these is the issue of ownership. There can be no full realisation of media freedom in a situation of growing conglomeration of ownership and homogenisation of content. One consequence of such conglomeration is that newsrooms are being cut down; research capacity is being decimated; and lifting from the wires as distinct from real investigative work is becoming the norm.

There can be no real media freedom without diversity in ownership of the media. Especially for the poor, media freedom should be understood to include their participation not merely as consumers, but also as producers of news and analysis.

There can be no real media freedom if commercial imperatives start to impact directly and on a day-to-day basis on content. Where the bottom-line dictates content in this pervasive manner and editors are held on a leash, the consequence is that advertisers and marketers determine news and analysis, and stories are sometimes spiked at their behest.

There can be no real media freedom under conditions of unique manifestations of censorship: self-censorship and what I would refer to as “peer censorship”.

Self-censorship in the sense that media sometimes tends to defer to powerful interest groups, to the extent of avoiding to examine complex issues in their contradictory manifestations.

Thus, instead of reflecting on the challenge of HIV and AIDS as one requiring a comprehensive response, we confine ourselves to hunting for controversy, ignoring progress in the implementation of all elements of the programme. We ignore the 70 000 who are now on treatment in a programme which, combined with efforts in the private sector, is becoming the biggest in the world.

Or we approach the issue of AIDS treatment only form the point of view of some interest groups to whom confrontation rather than partnership has become a raison d'être and ignore complex challenges such as capacity for monitoring and dealing with adverse effects of such treatment where they arise.

By “peer censorship” one refers to the tendency among journalists themselves to seek to dictate to others how they should cover issues. In the recent past – and this has changed somewhat – anyone who dared to acknowledge progress that government is making would be condemned by peers as a lapdog.

So, you find an editorial such as in last week's Sunday World (15/10/05), with a heading, “Broadsheets are lapdogs”. And when so insulted broadsheets transfer the insult to the SABC. The SABC in turn will then look for its own victim, and they will stalk eTV which interestingly ignores a nasty event affecting the Opposition, and they will then be labelled lapdog of the Opposition…

In other words, mutual labelling, in an attempt to confine every media practitioner to a particular paradigm, becomes the national media sport.


One raises these issues to argue that freedom is not an amorphous concept without value judgement, without frames of reference. If indeed, as the Constitution enjoins us, we are all striving to build a better life for all, we need to pose to ourselves the question: how do we use media freedom to promote this national objective!

The utility of media freedom – rather than just principle – should be its contribution in shaping the evolution of nations, in defining the trajectory of their development. In other words, when we talk about the media, we are not referring to a hapless institution, always victim, and waiting to be abused by others. Media wields enormous social power.

One has in the past referred to this debate, and once more, to quote from the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) of Australia in their “Recommended Revised Journalist Code of Ethics”:

“Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities.
“They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable.
“Accountability engenders trust.
“Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities”.

If then media occupies such a hallowed position as a contributor to the evolution of nations, what frames of reference should it define for itself?

This brings us to the question of national interest and public interest.

My view is that national interest consists mainly in ensuring the preservation and success of a nation-state; in promoting its founding consensus as reflected, in our case, in the Constitution; in recognising and promoting basic principles which make us as a nation who we are. In the words of our Constitution, all of us are enjoined to:

“Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

“Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

“Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and “Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”

It is in this context that even the issue of public interest should be treated. Of course public interest entails such issues as the public's right to know, speaking truth to power, exposing malfeasance and so on. In a truly democratic society, this should not be in contradiction to the national interest.

But, when all is said and done, even public interest should be informed by the question: how does its exercise raise democracy to new heights; how does it contribute to the quest to improve people's quality of life!

Failure to do this can result in lost bearings. Sensation is then pursued for its own sake and the balance among education, information and entertainment is missed. An approach is then encouraged where each media house competes with the other in dumbing down. Thus instead of carefully devised strategies to find and occupy niches, competition develops around “tablodisation” of content; and pursuit of quantity without quality becomes the new deity.

However, I think recent experience has shown that attempts on the part of established newspapers to compete with tabloids in the tabloids' own terrain is a recipe for disaster. There is no way they can outdo the tabloids without losing their own identity altogether.


In conclusion, I would like to reiterate two critical issues about the challenges facing South African media today.

Firstly, media freedom, like any other freedom, can be enjoyed for its own sake. But media faces the danger of consigning itself to social irrelevance if it ignores the national mission as contained in our Constitution. Thus its value will be defined more as a popular source of amusement – the opium that dulls the senses – and an institution that connives in the destruction of the very values that make its existence in freedom possible.

Secondly, media cannot demand respect if it fails to assume its responsibility as a public utility in the popular search for a better life. This does not require “sunshine journalism”. Yes, critique public policies and their implementation, but do so in a manner that adds value to the national endeavour. Yes, identify weaknesses in local government, but also follow the detail of the interventions as in Project Consolidate and assist the public to understand whether these interventions are improving things at all. Yes, report about corruption, but assist the public to reflect on the broader questions about how our souls are being poisoned by the spirit of conspicuous consumption in a socio-economic formation that encourages greed.

In other words, dig a little deeper. Search more intensely. And you will find that in the serious pursuits of the nation there is education, information, entertainment and even amusement galore: interesting things that sell newspapers and draw audiences, but things that add value to a society endeavouring to better itself.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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