Media: A vital source of information

2010-02-04 00:00

THE opinion piece by Stephanie Saville (The Witness, February 3) raises crucial issues that those in the communication field ponder from time to time, thus begging a view from within. We must admit that there is widespread recognition that the media has an important role in sustaining and nurturing democracy, good governance and human rights, but little consensus about how this is to be done. Part of the tension around this problem is that the media has two overlapping but distinct roles.

It is common cause that the media provides a platform where democratic debate happens, where information is exchanged and where cultural, class and religious expression should manifest. However, my colleague may not want to admit that it is also a social actor, acting in the interest of the dominant views held by a particular class.

Therefore, as a social actor, it can also be a partisan force and a weapon of “war” — class war. In this capacity, logic suggests that the media should be accountable for its actions, like any other social actor, but as a site where debate happens it is crucial that the media is allowed to carry debate and information without control by any party or government.

Historically, there have been few, if any, interventions implemented to help think strategically about the relationship between media and government institutions, and the most effective ways to strengthen the media’s contribution to the goals of the democratic government. Given this, both sides have been hesitant to engage in media support, even though they recognise the important role it plays in democratic transition and consolidation.

I must hastily point out that support in this instance does not refer to leaking information for purposes of sensation but rather strategic engagement for enhancement of social discourse. Contextual factors such as legal obligations, environment context (confidentiality of patient records, as an example) and will within the government to support media freedom all constrain or enhance efforts for media support.

Access to information is essential to the health of democracy for at least two reasons. First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. Second, information serves a “checking function” by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them.

In some societies, an antagonistic relationship between the media and the government represents a vital and healthy element of fully functioning democracies. In our democratic society, where pluralism and diversity of ideas are cherished, a conflictual, tension- ridden relationship may not be appropriate. But the role of the media to disseminate information as a way of mediating between the state and all facets of civil society remains critical.

If the media is to have any meaningful role in democracy, then the ultimate goal of media assistance should be to develop a range of diverse mediums and voices that are credible, and to create and strengthen a sector that promotes such outlets. Credible media outlets enable citizens to have access to information that they need to make informed decisions and to participate in society. Citizens do not want to be bombarded with sensation after sensation that is framed to portray this government as “another corrupt, backward African” government.

Media support should not be viewed in isolation from other areas of democracy and governance programmes and understood to be only important in civil society programming. Media support is a critical prong of strategies to support democracy and good governance. Even when there are perceived obstacles, engagement for mutual benefit might reasonably address these. The political will of government will enhance success.

• Chris Maxon is deputy manager, media liaison and IGR representative in the KZN Department of Health. He writes in his personal capacity.

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