Media freedom is the lifeblood of a democratic state. If there is no freedom of the media, the power of the press to hold the rulers accountable will be taken away. When we look at the generations that will carry the flag of journalism to the future, media freedom brings with it the responsibility of unity and association.
Media freedom is paramount in constitutional democracy as it ensures that the Fourth Estate plays a decisive role and the citizenry is at the centre.
One of the most important pillars that have played a leading role in most societies around the the world has been the media. Their critical role range from exposing the ills and corrupt, to cementing democracies. South African me- dia is no exception.
Over the years the local media has faced challenges but has certainly played a leading role in exposing the evil that was apartheid and being a critical voice to bring about change – which saw the dawn of democracy.
It’s now twenty-eight years since South Africa became a constitutional democracy, in almost these three decades, the media has once more played a critical role in getting the governing party to be accountable, in getting the private sector to play its role, when it came to those whose voices have been muted, and when it came to those whose economic circumstances are not as great as they should be. As last week’s World Bank report articulated, South Africa stands out globally as the most unequal society – a fact the local media has well reported on, a fact the rich, and those running government and the private businesses, are aware, largely thanks to what the local media reports on. The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), formed in 1996 when two organisations unified to form a single media entity that would play a critical role in South Africa’s democratic dispensation. This is a role that was not beset by challenges that varied from harassment of journalists, lack of finances to run the office, lack of support from some sectors in the media, and worryingly, hated by critics who wanted the organisation to be shut down as it became a voice for most practitioners.
South Africa’s Constitution safeguards freedom of expression through the Bill of Rights. This has central importance, even though it gets trampled upon often by those seeking to exploit the Constitution and disregard media freedom when it is convenient to them. This safeguard in the Constitution is not only monitored by SANEF, but also by other pivotal organisations that are aware of the dangers this may imply if such a right is not upheld.
There have been instances where media freedom is undermined. Instances where journalists are regarded as the enemy by those not wanting the media to do their job, by the same people who do bad things and trust that no light will befall on them. That will never be the case, because the South African media is known for being robust and always willing to report stories fairly. The number of investigations over the years covered by the South Africa’s media is well captured, and the awards won by these are there for all to see.
The recently released Edelman Trust Barometer lists the media second when it comes to the lack of trust. Politicians take the first place. The second place is worrying as the media cannot be seen as fraternity not to be trusted. Among the causes of the lack of trust in the media in recent years has been how unethical journalism has taken precedence. When trust dissipates, there is no single individual that would be willing to engage with that media entity. It’s worrying when the Trust Barometer says: “None of the major information sources are trusted as a source of general news and information, with trust in search engines at 59%, followed by traditional media at 57%, owned media at 43% and social media at only 37%.”
There are currently trust issues facing South Africa’s media, a concern that SANEF is working on with our member editors. We are working on this so that we can have newsrooms filled with ethical journalists, who are not part of political factions and are not known to be “brown envelope” journalism practitioners. SANEF is working towards curating an Ethics Barometer, as recommended by the Independent Panel Report in the Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility, prepared by Judge (retired) Kathleen Satchwell, Nikiwe Bikitsha, and Rich Mkhondo.
The recommendations of this August report are being taken in their stride by SANEF, among them a continued discussion around how to sustain journalism and find financial models that would see media entities, from community to mainstream, being financially stable. Freedom of the media is the lifeblood of the democratic state. Without the freedom of the media, the press is robbed of its ability to call those in power to account. Freedom of the media comes with responsibility for the fraternity, something that cannot be underestimated as we look at coming generations who would carry the journalism flag into the future. This is the generation that should not look at the work currently being done present journalists and be left with disappointment by failures to properly safeguards journalistic rights, by failure to call out evil governments that continue to harass, jail and murder journalists. Ours is a profession that the greater public know its importance, hence the need to regain trust, to be ethical, while we continue to call for safe spaces that allow the Fourth Estate to do its job, without any fear or favour.