Strong media 'protects the poor'

2010-09-22 17:38

Cape Town - A free media serves the interests of ordinary South Africans and attempts to rein it in will put the country on a slippery slope of eroding democratic values, Media24 Holdings and Welcome Yizani chairperson Jakes Gerwel warned on Wednesday.

He said the protection of information bill, which would impose prison sentences of up to 25 years for publishing classified information, and the ANC's proposed media appeals tribunal posed a threat in this direction.

"I can understand if the general populace turns out to be quite indifferent to the threats posed by these proposed measures. Poverty and unemployment are more pressing issues to the majority of the population than threats to freedom of expression," Gerwel told Media24's annual general meeting.

"Freedom of expression and free media are, however, not luxuries that can be disposed of. It is exactly the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable that are ultimately protected against the excesses of and exploitation by the powerful, through a robust and an unfettered media," said Gerwel.

"We may acquiesce in these first attempts at limiting freedom, because we think we understand what 'the movement' is trying to achieve. The erosion of freedom is, however, an irreversible process. What comes next, and next, and next? And where do we land up in the end?"


Gerwel said the debate on the bill and the ANC's call for greater regulation might have prompted the press to question whether self-regulation was effective.

"Of course, the media has to get its house in better order. We do have measures for self-regulation and recourse. What the current debate may have done is to have us re-examine the efficacy of those measures," he said.

Earlier this week, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils reiterated a plea to government to withdraw the bill, saying it was "a danger and distinct threat to democracy".

"Unfortunately, ANC ministers who have appeared to be embarrassed in the media seem to feel that they need to control the press," he told the Cape Town Press Club.

The SA Institute for Race Relations on Wednesday said complaints by government and the ANC that self-regulation had failed were baseless.

Statistics showed that of 356 complaints received by the press ombudsman in three years, only 43 were from the ruling party or government, and in most of those he ruled in their favour.

"In light of this data, the only conclusion to draw on the envisaged media tribunal is that it is part of a wider agenda of extending political control over independent institutions in South Africa," the SAIRR said.