Media freedom a prop for democracy

IN ANY democracy the people are the ultimate source of power. And, as American mathematician Norbert Wiener once said, to live effectively is to live with adequate information.

The debate about press and media freedom has been raging for months now. Tension between the media and government is a perennial issue.

Perhaps it has even reached a stage where readers are tiring of reading about the struggle - with the result that those who wish to proscribe the media find fertile ground and acceptance of whatever is thrown at them.

That would be a grave mistake.

It is therefore quite necessary for the media, and advocacy groups, to continue the relentless defence of media freedom. It is also important for citizens of the country to realise the threat to their own freedoms in government's pursuit of anti-democratic laws to control the media.

And last week, the South African Press Council announced new measures to strengthen the self-regulating mechanism of the media. Inevitably, the ANC has stated that the measures do not go far enough, and demanded that more needs to be done.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu says there is a need for an appeals panel with the power to suspend or fire journalists, while the report on the functioning of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman has rejected the principle of fining newspapers or journalists, insisting that peer pressure and publication of adjudications was sanction enough for newspapers and journalists.

And he added that the ruling party is still committed to setting up a media tribunal.

Press ombudsman Joe Thloloe believes that the code has been tightened to root out irresponsible journalism. For him, this is all about improving the standards of journalism, and ensuring best practice of the craft rules, and not about pandering to the whims and wishes of the ANC.

I share Thloloe's view that journalism does not set out to be bad. It is true that our journalism can be great, but it is also true that some journalism can be dreadful. But that is only because journalists are human, after all, and not because some journalist deliberately sets out to write a bad story.

At the same time, editors know that readers can judge newspapers harshly - and this will reflect in the circulation of the newspaper.

Recently The Guardian newspaper in the UK hosted an event labelled After Hacking: How Can The Press Restore Trust?.

This is an acknowledgement that the hacking incident, which resulted in the closure of News of The World, has tarnished the media generally, not only in the UK, but throughout the world. The incident will always be cited as an example of how errant the media can be.

The challenge for South African media is to continue to strive for acceptable levels of balance and accurate reporting.

In a democracy the need for accurate information is critical. It is on this information that citizens are expected to make decisions, which imposes on the media a greater responsibility.

Citizens should therefore demand of newspapers, and the media generally, nothing less than reliable, accurate information, and hold newspapers accountable for what they publish.

Journalism's principal role is to broadcast information and interpretation of information to the people accurately, and never betray the truth. There is no doubt that truth itself has become suspicious because of the actions of a few.

But just as much as citizens must hold newspapers accountable, they should similarly hold their political representatives accountable. They should do that not only because politicians act in their name, but for the greater good of society.

And the freedom of the media is one area that needs to be protected, for without a free media, it is not possible for the citizens of a country to know what their public representatives are doing, and for corrupt activities to be exposed and eliminated.

The institution of the press ombudsman might not be perfect, but nobody has as yet questioned the integrity and credibility of its adjudication process.

Mostly, the question of sanction has been the major concern - but few readers would know how journalists despise those who bring their profession into disrepute, and there is no greater sanction than this.

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