Reflecting on media freedom in South Africa


Yesterday marked 41 years since 19 October 1977, when the apartheid government banned several organisations, as well as popular newspapers and journalists. Since then, it has been known as Black Wednesday and it has become the day on which we reflect on media freedom in South Africa.

Some people will say that October 14 should probably become known as Black Sunday, because this was the day when the Sunday Times, still the biggest newspaper in South Africa, confessed and apologised for carrying a series of false stories which, it appears was planted in the paper by forces aligned to a faction within the ruling party.

The editor of the paper should be applauded for taking responsibility for something that happened before his time. But the actions of the Sunday Times have raised all kinds of ethical dilemmas for journalists. It is a crisis as big as what happened on Black Wednesday, even though it is completely different in nature.

Already there are calls from some political circles for the introduction of a Media Appeals Tribunal, which was proposed by the ANC a few years ago. But before we rush into stuff that could irreversibly damage our media freedom and democracy, it is important to reflect on the lessons to be learnt from what happened at the Sunday Times.

The thing is, it could have happened to anyone but those who planted the stories probably considered the reach and influence of the paper. History is filled with examples of how the media has been used to push certain agendas. In this case, however, lives of people found to be innocent have been destroyed and there are calls for more action to be taken against the paper. Some people are saying that an apology is not enough.

I agree it is not enough, but it is surely a good first step. The Alcoholics Anonymous people will tell you that the first step to dealing with your problem is to admit it. This is what the Sunday Times has done. Now we will have to see whether the internal checking mechanisms that they have introduced will be able to prevent something similar from happening in future.

I am always sceptical when politicians comment on the media, because they always appear to have hidden agendas. Most politicians probably do not like a free press, even though they are forced to live with it because our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression.

When there are suddenly calls for the media to reveal their sources, I become suspicious, no matter how despicable the sources might be. But it we start revealing our sources, we have no idea where all of this will end up. Based on the precedent that we set now, we could be forced to reveal legitimate and innocent sources in future.

But the one thing that the Sunday Times saga has revealed is that the concept of audi alteram partem (right of reply) is not enough. It is not good enough to say that we have given you the right of reply and so we will publish all the claims against you. There needs to be a more vigorous interrogation of the integrity of our sources and the information that they have given us.

The problem with using the mistakes of the Sunday Times to punish all media is that the media has never been homogenous and should never be. The best democracies are ones in which there is a huge diversity of voices in the media space. Ideally, there should even be a diversity of voices at the same publication.

As we reflect on media freedom this week, it is important to remember that this should never be an issue only for journalist. The best way to defend media freedom is by making sure that it is an issue with which our entire society should be concerned.

Ryland Fisher is a former newspaper editor. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher)