Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Support for media freedom is more important than ever

2017-06-22 08:02
Indian journalists hold placards during a protest against attack on journalists in Mumbai. (File,AP).

Indian journalists hold placards during a protest against attack on journalists in Mumbai. (File,AP).

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South African companies that contribute to media development and freedom deserve accolades for investing in the future of the country’s democratic project.

Thanks to the contribution of companies led by conscientious executives, the South African National Editors’ Forum has sustained its tradition of honouring the deserving advocates of public journalism.

At a ceremony held in Durban recently, City Press investigative journalist Sipho Masondo – the Mcebisi Jonas of the media who chose the truth over bribes – got the coveted Nat Nakasa award for his courageous reporting on corruption. Veteran journalist Mathatha Tsedu got a lifetime award.

Financial services firm Sanlam was the sponsor of this important annual event. Sanlam took over from Standard Bank. Sanlam and Standard Bank have a history of supporting media freedom initiatives in democratic South Africa. Sanlam has for some time sponsored community media journalism awards. For its part, Standard Bank has sponsored the Sikuvile awards.

Corporate sponsors of journalism awards are not involved in judging the quality of journalism as this would be unethical and would not guarantee the necessary credibility among media practitioners. Instead, they leave it to experienced journalists, including retired practitioners, to make the calls.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy about a strong and free media. It is frowned upon by those who fear scrutiny. It is, however, appreciated by journalists and South Africans who understand the value of media freedom as an indispensable ingredient of a constitutional democracy. 

Sadly, among those who fail to appreciate a strong media are some Johnny-come-lately media entrepreneurs who are clueless about the role of journalism. It is unfortunate that the media has courted a few shortsighted investors who are chasing a quick buck at the expense of a bigger picture.

Their strategy, it seems, is aimed at squeezing journalism and blood-sucking assets when co-investors aren’t watching. The ultimate aim is to secure a dividend at all costs. Some of these entrepreneurs spend time publicly attacking competitors seemingly to carry favour with people who are not pleased by the influential and effective role of an independent media post-1994. But more on this on another day.

Following the Sanef awards ceremony held in Durban, Adriaan Basson, Sanef executive member, praised Sanlam for coming to the party. He tweeted: “Big shout-out to @sanlam for sponsoring the #NatNakasa award! We need more corporates supporting media freedom”.  

Not happy with Sanlam’s noble contribution, @ANC_Leads retorted: “Well, he killed himself because of the Apartheid Regime which @sanlam sponsored.” The tweet amused an influential government official in the economic cluster. 

Such an attack on a contribution aimed at consolidating our democracy is naïve. It shows ignorance of the kind of country Nat Nakasa wanted to live in: a nonracial society where a free media is a guardian of a strong democratic political culture.

Nakasa rebelled against apartheid restrictions. He lived in areas where black people were banned. Some accounts suggest he ignored immorality laws and dated across the colour line. 

A very talented journalist and essayist, he was pained by racial restrictions that sought to curtail his potential. He took a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and left South Africa on an exit permit. He died on 14 July 1965 after he fell from a building in New York in what was widely believed to be suicide. 

For years, Sanef, the Department of Arts and Culture, and the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government worked hard to repatriate Nakasa’s remains. We buried his remains in 2014 at Heroes Acre in Chesterville. It was a very emotional ceremony.

His remains returned home under a constitutional democracy where, unlike during his time, there are no political restrictions.

Freedom of the media, thought, speech, movement, association and other fundamental rights which he exercised in defiance of the apartheid regime are enshrined in the Constitution. But these rights cannot be taken for granted. It is in his honour that journalists today are called upon to remain brave regardless of whatever challenges they face.

South Africans chose a constitutional democracy to end the racial segregation that forced Nakasa to leave the country. The Constitution was crafted not to alienate other citizens or to avenge for the wrongs of the past. Our transition to democracy was based on a negotiated settlement that was followed by a national reconciliation project. With all its flaws – yes, it was imperfect – the transition would have been impossible without an agreement on reconciliation. 

The outcome of the negotiated settlement was that old institutions, including private companies such as Sanlam and state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and Transnet, which primarily served the interest of a few, would be transformed to be truly nonracial. A number of legislative instruments have been passed to give effect to the vision of a nonracial South Africa. 

The fact that some private sector companies are untransformed is a matter of national concern. Equally worrying is that SOEs are being hijacked to serve foreign interests.

In the 1990s, the democratic government took a decision not to support a lawsuit against foreign companies that had invested in South Africa during the apartheid era. The idea was that the new South Africa would need to attract investment to fast-track the social upliftment of the majority of citizens. 

Moreover, domestic and foreign capital would no longer be the enemy of the people. It would be subject to the constitutional discipline of the new order so that it can help build it. 

It is in this context that companies like Sanlam, Standard Bank and others should be encouraged to support media freedom. A very strong and free media is critical in ensuring that the terrible past that drove Nakasa out of the country of his birth never recurs in whatever form.

Never and never again, to paraphrase former President Nelson Mandela.

- Mkhabela is the former chairman of Sanef. He is a media consultant and a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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Read more on:    media freedom  |  journalism
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