SA has shown it can walk a fine line between opposites

Reporters sans frontières activists in France demonstrate outside the Syrian embassy. (Joel Saget, AFP)

Reporters sans frontières activists in France demonstrate outside the Syrian embassy. (Joel Saget, AFP)

Over the past 18 months the world has witnessed a sweeping wind of change. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, journalists, bloggers, photographers and filmmakers have chronicled the cries for change and freedom that ignited the region.  At the same time, citizens armed with nothing but cellphones risked their lives to upload the truth for the world to see. Through their lenses and their stories we have watched as new democracies emerged.
The role of a free media to tell these stories has never been more important.

It is a simple equation that the world’s leading democracies, South Africa and the United States among them, know to be true: open governments, open economies and open societies flourish. In countries in which information on government resources is shared, societal needs are better addressed and citizens are healthier, better educated and more secure. In countries in which allegations of corruption are scrutinised and officials held to account, economies are more likely to blossom. When citizens are well informed, countries can thrive. When a country silences the press, it silences voices of dissent, restricts freedom of expression and creates dark places where human rights abuses, tyranny and corruption can thrive.

In today’s interconnected world, countries that attempt to keep public information secret or shut down ideas fight a battle they will eventually lose. The days of government-imposed blackouts are over – journalists can snap photos on cellphones, news reports can be beamed from the field, activists can tweet and SMS updates on events as they happen. But some countries continue efforts to control information – they target journalists, shut down newspapers, jail bloggers and seek to intimidate the press. Ten years ago, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists than ever before were detained because of their work – 118 individuals.

In 2012 the number is 179 and includes news reporters and editors, photojournalists and bloggers. Since 1992, 911 journalists have been killed in the line of duty. In South Africa, over the past two years, we have mourned the death of Anton Hammerl and admired the resolve and courage of João Silva as he returned to photography after suffering debilitating injuries. On World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3 this year, we honour their work and recognise that it has never been more dangerous to be a journalist.

Unequivocal language
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the general assembly of the United Nations in 1948, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This unequivocal language should be celebrated by all, because it guarantees the public the right to know about issues that affect them. Of course, formalising these principles into law will require each country to find its own unique balance. All countries, including my own, still struggle between guaranteeing a free press and protecting the rights of individuals and safeguarding national security interests.

As South Africa goes through its own version of this debate, the world is watching. Because of its history, its emergence as a democracy and its exceptional Constitution, South Africa is a standard-bearer for the global community on human rights and dignity. It is why the positive reception from journalists, activists and members of the ANC to the broad principles outlined in the recently released Press Freedom Commission report are so welcome.

This independent body of eminent individuals, chaired by former Chief Justice Pius Langa, clearly articulated not only the value of a free and independent press, but also outlined a system of co-regulation, independent of government – and accountable to the public. Although work remains to be done to take these report findings and translate them into a system that all can agree on, it is an example of South Africa’s ability, drawing on all parts of society, to craft solutions consistent with its great Constitution.

Precious freedom
The process demonstrates to the world that good people, working together, can devise solutions to find that appropriate balance between press freedom and the protection of rights.

World Press Freedom Day should remind those of us lucky to live in vibrant democracies how precious this freedom is and how important a role a free press plays in democracy. A responsible press reminds government officials to keep their promises and serves as a country’s best watchdog – and no leader is exempt from their scrutiny. As United States President Barack Obama said in his remarks to the Young African Leaders Forum in August 2010: “One of the wonderful things about the US is that, in my position, there are often times when I think I know more than some of my critics. Yet we have institutionalised the notion that those critics have every right to criticise me, no matter how unreasonable I think they may be.”

We all have an obligation to protect press freedom and at the same time demand high-quality, responsible reporting from our media. It is a two-way street. As Walter Cronkite, a US broadcaster known for his pursuit of the highest standards of journalism, said: “A democracy ceases to be a democracy if its citizens do not participate in its governance. To participate intelligently, they must know what their government has done, is doing and plans to do in their name. Whenever any hindrance, no matter what its name, is placed in the way of this information, a democracy is weakened and its future endangered. This is the meaning of freedom of the press. It is not just important to democracy; it is democracy.”

Donald Gips is the United States ambassador to South Africa


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