Media Freedom is sacrosanct to our young Democracy

30 November 2020

By Phumla Williams

Freedom of expression and media freedom is an integral part of our democracy. The Constitution entrenches the right to freedom of expression, including media freedom. Since 1994 we have been resolute in the belief that an independent and free media are vital partners in strengthening any democracy.

Access to information is the lifeblood of any democracy and is key to the development of our nation. Traditionally means such as press statements, email, media conferences or engagements, either telephonically or face to face, were the primary means for engagement between government and the media.

However, much has changed in the communications landscape and social media has largely driven this change. Now information is routinely shared on Twitter, Facebook or platforms such as WhatsApp. These new modes of communication have enabled us to share information in real time and to get immediate feedback.

The omnipresent WhatsApp group is now often the primary means of communication when several parties are involved. It provides for ease of communication and allows several parties to interact or share information. It has become an invaluable tool in the communications landscape and is routinely used in newsrooms, government departments, and across civil society.

As government we embrace any platform that allows us to strengthen relationships with the media, while also allowing us to speak about the work of government and to share our successes and challenges.

Recently a simple WhatsApp group which was created to share information with media and communicators became the subject of much conjecture and unfounded speculation. Any platform which allows us to share and speak to the media supports GCIS’ core mandate to proactively communicate with the public about government policies, plans, programmes and achievements.

Media, on the other hand, have a duty to interrogate such information. We fully expect in an open democracy such as ours that media may not necessarily take government information at face value and may subject such information to further inquiry or critique.

Conversely, when content is used it is simply because government communicators have done their job in publicising the policies and activities of government. This is how the media has always operated and will continue to operate, regardless of the platform in use. Media have many checks and balances which form part of their core journalistic principles. These have not become redundant simply because of the platform in use, and to suggest otherwise is malicious.

Government has noted that the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) has spoken about the issue and has expressed concern about a disinformation campaign on social media, seeking to link senior journalists, including Sanef members, on a group WhatsApp titled "Thuma Mina".

Sanef itself notes that according to information in its possession, the group is purely used to share information and press statements. It goes on to say that it is one of the hundreds of WhatsApp groups that the government, political parties and private organisations use to disseminate information to journalists.

They end the statement by emphasising that there is nothing nefarious or underhanded about the group and Sanef calls on those spreading disinformation about journalists to cease doing so.

Indeed, this entire episode has shown that there will always be contestation over the work of government and how successes and challenges are shared. This is both natural and expected in an open democracy such as ours.

As government, however, we remain resolute in ensuring that the public are well informed by having access to vital information. Media have been and will continue to be our key partner in this endeavour.

As government we remain committed to continue promoting media freedom and ensure that media do their work without fear or intimidation. We fought very hard for an open society and for media freedom, and we will continue to protect this safeguard to our democracy and freedom.

In an era of instant information sharing it becomes even more important that we guard against false narratives or fake news. Everyone has a responsibility to be mindful of what they share and to interrogate what they read, watch or listen to.

As government we will continue to ensure that South Africans are armed with information to make informed decisions and to better their lives. Nothing will distract us from our duty of building a better tomorrow for all.

Phumla Williams is the Director General of the Government Communications and Information System.