Free media is a Freedom Day gift

2012-04-28 09:08

The Press Freedom Commission ­recommendations, coming as they do in the week that we celebrate freedom of all South Africans, come with the promise not unlike of that day 18 years ago.

Like that day in April 1994, the recommendations are a high point of South ­Africans’ ability to find common ground where others had resigned themselves to a conflict that would only leave winners and losers.

Like our democracy, it is not perfect. All the sides involved here will find lots that they like and many that they loathe. So it shall be, being as it is an outcome of human minds with ­differing thoughts and interests.

One of the major concerns about the ­recommendations emerging from media ­practitioners is that the public having greater ­representation than media deployments will mean the end of self-regulation as we have had since the dawn of democracy.

The concern is valid, but not necessarily true. It does not follow that having been a practising ­journalist at some point in one’s life means that one holds positive views and attitudes to freedom of the media and of expression. It is equally ­fallacious to assume that those who have never worked in media are necessarily hostile to the business.

The success of the Press Council will depend on the personal integrity of those who will ­constitute it. Still, even they must be allowed to dither before they find their footing.

We are in unchartered waters. As we did with politics in 1994, we are harbingers of a media regulation regime that has no known templates anywhere in the world. For that, we should be proud of ourselves. Once again, we have found sufficient consensus.

We are under no illusion that the commission’s recommendation will be the panacea for all that is ­perceived or objectively wrong with our media. It has been said that good journalism is the best ­defence against the erosion of media freedom.

This is partly true. A vigilant populace is the ­ultimate bulwark against instincts of the political and commercial elites to silence voices critical of them.

Robust, critical and ethical journalism is one of the best contributions the media can ­contribute to this democracy that we are ­celebrating and building.

It is for this reason we welcome the greater role of the public in becoming part of those who will guard the guards.

What we do emphasise though is that members of this body should be men and women with a track record of serving the best interests of South Africa rather than their ideological and political bends. If they are not, then they will – and not some external foe – be the greatest threats to ­media freedom.

That, like our hard-earned political freedom, is too precious to even contemplate trading.

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