Surmounting deadlock over the state of South African media freedom

National Press Freedom Day on October 19 is a fitting anniversary to take stock of threats to South African journalism — and especially of the responses and what they might portend.

According to a report released on the weekend, up till 20 10, South Africans took press freedom for granted and became passive around the issue.

Further, says the report, many South Africans have not seen themselves properly reflected in the media, and so have had little interest in supporting media freedom.

There are also those who prioritise issues like housing or health and don’t yet see the importance of free expression as a precondition for progress on these issues. But all this is beginning to change, says the document.

There are new links being forged between civil society and media. And though the document originated in August before the recent “Right2Know” campaign got going, it refers to the SOS Campaign for Public Broadcasting as one example of the new times.

These insights are part of a report called the “African Media Barometer South Africa 20 10”. Presented in booklet form, the document follows on more than 46 earlier Barometers covering a total of 25 African countries, all underwritten by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (who also sponsor this column).

Each national report is the result of in-depth discussion by five civil society experts and five media practitioners in each given country.

The group allocates scores under 45 headings that are derived from the African Union’s Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression. In general, four broad areas are assessed: freedom of expression; media diversity and independence; the health of broadcasting; and journalistic professionalism.

The latest South African Barometer gives the country an overall score of 3 out of 5 down from 3,5 in 20 08, and 3,2 in 20 06. In other words, while the country meets some aspects of the African Union’s benchmarks, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Amongst the negative features that should be addressed, the report notes:

  • A sharpening of tone in political discourse that inhibits “rational and democratic debate”.
  • Several draft laws plus the statutory Media Appeals Tribunal which threaten media independence.
  • The ongoing crisis at SABC.

It also registers extra-governmental threats to journalism:

  • Cost-cutting by media conglomerates.
  • Urban and middle-class orientation of much media. (For the criterion of diverse, affordable and accessible information, South Africa scores a miserable 2,2 out of 5.).

In addition to the new and broad mobilisation around communication rights, the report also shows much else on the positive side:

  • Media 24, Independent Newspapers and the Mail & Guardian have increased their investigative journalism capacity.
  • There are renewed efforts by the media to perform better,
  • The Press Council self-regulation system has become more efficient (a deputy Ombudsman post has been added).

Other pertinent points in the Barometer are:

  • For the low level of state funding for SABC and the Media Development and Diversity Agency, the country scores a paltry 2,2 out of 5.
  • An even worse rating is the 1,6 out of 5 as regards South Africa having a coherent ICT policy that “aims to meet the information needs of all citizens, including marginalised communities”.
  • While most journalists do not practice self-censorship, says the report, there is “anecdotal evidence” that this does happen at the SABC. As regards society as a whole, the country scores only 2,9 out of 5 in regard to citizens and journalists fearlessly asserting their right to free expression.
  • The extent to which South African journalists have integrity and are not corrupt is scored at 3,9 out of 5. The report says that most mistakes are not malicious, but rather the result of inexperience and reduced staff numbers.
  • The Barometer report was released at a research colloquium of 18 journalism schools held in Grahamstown on the weekend. The event reduced the volume of inflamed rhetoric and saw intellectual debate between academics and influential ANC members like Pallo Jordan, Ismail Vavi and Lumko Mtimde.

    Many of the research papers presented dealt with criticisms and improvements in press self-regulation and accountability. They are now being fed into a review by the Press Council of its functioning. In one, I proposed a method for drawing on international experiences in order to shape recommendations to reform the Council.

    Different views on the right to information, expression and media freedom in South Africa are not about to enter an age of harmony. But there is emerging accord on some of the problems, an increasing recognition of complexities, and an openness to new ideas.

    Combined with wider stakeholder involvement in the debate, the result seems to be a mellowing of the antagonism between ANC and the press. That’s not a bad outcome for a National Press Freedom Day.

    *This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author.

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