WITHOUT legislation to combat censorship and the suppression of opinion, the media will continue to be an exclusive debating club in which ordinary people are excluded on the basis of race, gender and class. In fact the recent debacle involving the Sunday Times and the SANEF Ombudsman proves that the industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself. However such a view is admittedly problematic since it opens the door to legislation that might do anything but garner trust.
By regulating the media’s nasty habit of suppressing information that it doesn’t enjoy — the censoring of alternative views and the stifling of different perspectives the popular press doesn’t agree with — could we be destroying something unique and valuable in our democracy? By some reports, regulation of any sort might just dismantle the independence of media not just from government, but from itself. What then is the correct path to follow?
The solution may be found in our nations constitution. The media are what is in effect a fourth estate*** — a pillar not of the legislature or government but rather of the South African commons, enshrined as “We the People” and awarded special duties and privileges by the invocation of the right to freedom of expression in particular section 16 (1) (a). Great in theory, but to what degree do the media, in particular print media, feel bound by the bill of rights and constitution of 1996?
Ideals such as freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion form part of a magnificent bouquet of rights under section 15, but they do not exclude the use of legislation to give emphasis to what for all intents and purposes should be a pillar of society — the institutional challenge of picking apart the inalienable set of rights and principles already within the public domain and given substance by the presence of media. For instance the right of reply (a right which is rarely if ever actually accorded people without power, status and money), is considered one of the hallmarks of a liberal or free press.
In a country that has enjoyed democracy and human rights for little more than a decade, there is a sad lack of tolerance of dissent, and very little precedent with regards separation of powers and the commons versus the state. Bring on the legislators then, to open the door to a more responsible and, one hopes, a freer media.
***The term fourth estate is frequently attributed to the nineteenth century historian Carlyle, though he himself seems to have attributed it to Edmund Burke:
Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact, …. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. ….. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.
Carlyle (1905) pp.349-350