South Africa’s media freedom under scrutiny

TWO issues impacting on the constitutional guarantee of press freedom have emerged over the past weeks. The first relates to the ability of the media to report about and to access information held by the state, and the second involves the right of the public to demand fairness and accuracy in reporting, and when such conflicts emerge, to have a redress of grievances. While reporting about the proposed Protection of Information Bill has been on the whole good, and Medialternatives supports the stance taken by SANEF — the act severely limits press freedom and should be opposed — the shake-up of the Press Ombudsman framework by a draconian “media tribunal” in which ordinary citizens as well as government departments may ostensibly seek redress of grievances, has failed to establish the role of the public sphere in the mediation of a “marketplace of ideas”.

It does not help the debate to see two sectors pitted against each other. On the one hand government bureaucrats who wish to see the press in some form of subservient role instead of a vibrant and independent “fourth estate” while claiming they have the best interests of the public at heart. On the other hand, the press barons who similarly wish to see press freedom as freedom only for those who own the presses.

The debate about information access and the ill-considered media tribunal comes at a time when the mainstream press is increasingly irrelevant to the new social discourse which has emerged as a result of the Internet.

In today’s interconnected world, the idea of the fourth estate may seem a little antiquated. For starters, we no longer rely on print media for information. Electronic media has surpassed print media in ways that could never have been predicted. Not only do we have a multitude of radio and television channels, but the written word has been liberated by social networking sites, blogging platforms, and a plethora of new ways of exchanging media.

It would seem trite then that our government has only now woken up to the fact that yes, there have been abuses committed in the name of press freedom, while seemingly championing a cause which will essentially restrict what may or may not be reported about? Surely a reactionary and Orwellian move which ignores the newly empowered public sphere, while quixotically introducing restrictive measures such as an apartheid-era “media tribunal” to regulate the press, which no longer exists in the way it once did?.

Since we no longer operate in an environment in which the fourth estate exists as an entirely separate entity to the public sphere, (the analogy taken from revolutionary France really no longer applies in an online world, since we are the media) we need to ask questions such as — how will this regulatory witch-hunt effect online media? What precedents will be set and will they be good or bad ones? Can we escape the manufacture of consent, creation of propaganda, and dictates of large media cartels at the same time that we move towards an open society?

Will closing ranks around a few bills that essentially limit constitutional guarantees, result in regressive legislation? And how can we best create a more tolerant, open society, that essentially regulates itself by guaranteeing basic freedoms? In fact is there even a need for a media tribunal in the first place when we have a legal system? Wouldn’t any tribunal merely reproduce the problems in the legal system and shouldn’t government be doing more to provide access to justice and civil liberties instead of tinkering with a new, untested animal which may have all sorts of negative social impacts?

These are the questions which Medialternatives wishes to pose in the coming months as the debate about South African press freedom and government regulation heats up.

NOTE: Read Prof John Higgins’ excellent piece on Censorship and Karl Marx published by Business Day.

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