16 July 1999
Ten years ago, who would have dreamt that you could sit in the comfort of your office or home and read the daily newspaper on your computer screen?
Who could have visualised the mushrooming of satellite dishes which we are seeing across the suburbs, in townships - even in some informal settlements - as South Africans rush to become part of the global village?
Who could have imagined the emergence of the innovative on-line media initiatives which you will be hearing about at today's conference - innovations which have ensured South Africa takes its rightful place as a member of the "wired" world?
I'm sure even fewer of us could have imagined seeing young South Africans working away at computer terminals in telecentres in rural parts of our country, dialling into the Internet to find the information they need to complete their school projects, or accessing our own Government web site, Government Online to find our what new development government is planning in their area.
For this reason alone, we can refer to these amazing technological developments as a revolution - they are revolutionising how we work, how we relax, and how we engage with each other and with the rest of the world.
It is a sweeping revolution which, like any major transformation, has the potential to fundamentally change the power relationships within society and to influence economies, political structures, civil society and corporate destinies.
This information revolution poses major challenges to all of us - not least of all to those involved in the dissemination of information.
Let me reflect on some of these challenges:
Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that the information revolution knows no boundaries. It crosses borders; it allows information to be disseminated to and from the tiniest community in the most isolated society.
In this, the dawn of the African Century, we must exploit that potential to build a greater understanding of our continent and its people. We must use the technology at our disposal to build bridges of understanding between various communities, to empower the people of Africa with information which can contribute to their sustainable development. We must use it to build our understanding of the diverse strengths and weaknesses of our continent, to share our common problems and to jointly find solutions.
As Africans, we have been among the greatest innovators on our planet. We need to draw again on that resourcefulness and creativity to provide new solutions to the challenges facing our continent - challenges which exploit the opportunities created by the information revolution.
Secondly, we have to acknowledge that the information revolution can contribute greatly to the rebirth of a culture of learning and reading in our country.
The ongoing declines in many newspaper circulation figures are an indication, to some extent, of a wider problem: a decline in reading, whether it be books, magazines or journals. These declines are only matched by the rapid increases in Internet subscribers, particularly among our youth, and a switch to more youth-focused radio and TV programmes.
But we all know that the youth are the key to rebuilding a reading culture, and we hope that you will use your resources to help promote such a culture, working hand in hand with those in the literacy field, in the print media, and in civil society as a whole. Today's Internet browser is tomorrow's Internet newspaper reader, and if we can inculcate the culture of reading - as opposed to browsing - our country will be all the richer.
There is a third challenge particularly for those involved in electronic journalism: the challenge of using computer-assisted research and reporting to provide your subscribers with access to more and more information.
Computers, electronic databases and the world-wide web allow journalists to more rigorously monitor and scrutinise the activities of those in power. They are powerful resources in the hands of an investigative journalist, and we trust that the media profession is making maximum use of these resources - as well as training its members in how to use this technology to its maximum.
But when they turn their electronic magnifying glass on those in power, we hope they will not only focus on those few crooked public servants who sully the name of government.
Yes, the activities of Government must be scrutinised. Our President has made this clear in all his recent public statements, and repeatedly stated that we will be tough on corruption, and tough on the people responsible for corruption.
We are striving, for example, to finalise the Open Democracy Bill during the next Parliamentary session, which will provide South Africans with the tools they require to ensure public scrutiny of government. It will also protect whistleblowers within the public service who come across corrupt practices, providing an incentive for public-minded public servants to come forward with the information we need to clean out corrupt elements.
But Government does not have a monopoly on corruption. There are bigger, more dishonest crooks in the corporate sector who tempt Government employees with bribes and kickbacks. There are also hundreds of incidents of blue-collar crime which go unreported by business and are therefore unrecorded by the media. Because of this culture of silence, and the lack of probing by the media, the corporate crooks can contribute to wheel and deal their way to excessive wealth through corrupt practices, scams and shady deals.
We believe the media has a critical role to play in using this new technology to expose ALL corrupt practices, not just committed by a few bad apples in Government. We hope you are prepared to rise to the occasion, so that the RDP of the Soul that the President referred to, becomes a reality.
just bring new rights. They also bring new responsibilities, and we hope you are not just aware of these responsibilities but are committed to meeting them.
These new responsibilities include a commitment to tell the truth, a commitment to balanced reportage; a commitment to presenting all sides of the story before publication; a commitment to fairness.
There are broader social responsibilities. For example, in his speech at the Opening of Parliament the President said we can no longer accept war, violent conflict and rapine are a permanent condition of existence in Africa.
We believe the media has responsibility to contribute in whatever way possible to the resolution of conflict on our continent. We cannot accept that the media continue to fan conflict and heighten the political temperature by enforcing stereotypes, emphasising division and reporting untruths. Nor can we accept one-sided reporting or coverage which presents issues out of context.
In the same speech, President Mbeki pointed out that we all have to make a contribution to the construction of a new world order that will be responsive to the needs of the poor.
It is this responsibility which perhaps poses one of the greatest : As you know, successful revolutions have winners and losers. There are those who benefit from their activities, and those who suffer.
In the case of your revolution, it would be a travesty if the only beneficiaries were the owners of these means of communication. It would be a travesty if the impact of your revolution were to be to further enrich the information rich and further deprive the information-hungry. It would be a particular travesty if the technology and innovation were used to consolidate existing information power relationships rather than change them.
For this reason, we hope you will use your innovation, your resourcefulness and your access to information and research to make a substantive difference to those who are most in need of credible information.
This could be done through your own innovation and initiative. It could be done through partnerships with Government, for example with our Government Communication and Information System. It could be done through the development of joint projects to provide information and knowledge to those in need, or through sharing ideas and expertise with the people charged with communicating on behalf of Government.
That is the challenge I would like to leave you with: to act as true information revolutionaries, working in partnership with Government to bring about progressive change for the people of South Africa and the continent as a whole. We want what the President calls a common effort to build a winning nation - with everyone, yourselves included, involved in the effort to work for a better South Africa.
Indeed, ours must in actual practice become a nation at work to build a better life!
I thank you.
Minister in The Presidency, Dr Essop Pahad
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)