Let’s tell the whole story

2012-02-11 11:36

Last year, a local television station beamed to millions of households during its prime time news bulletin a touching story of how my office helped a young man from Alexandra, Johannesburg, secure an ID book after five years of repeated failed attempts.

The young man was a victim of the duplicate ID number phenomenon, where two random people find themselves sharing an ID number. Under normal circumstances, this number should be unique to each person in the population register.

This problem had cost the young man five valuable years of his life as he could not get his matric results to further his studies and earn a living. He could only watch as his peers progressed with their tertiary studies and entered the job market while he languished at home. Amazingly, he remained hopeful and positive
about life.

Unfortunately, the young man’s plight mirrored those of many other people, young and old, across
South Africa. It came as no surprise when my office was inundated with calls from people with similar problems just hours after the story was broadcast.
There were many lessons to learn from this experience. Perhaps the most overlooked, yet important one, was the fact that the media plays a very prominent role in “helping us make informed decisions” about our livelihoods, as the Right2Know Campaign for press freedom puts it.

In this case, the news report concerned opened the eyes of those who had been hopeless to the reality that there is an institution called the Public Protector that could bring them much-needed relief in a matter of days.
Had it not been for that news report that evening, many people with duplicate ID number problems would have still been in a state of distress. To them, the green, pocket-sized and bar-coded book would have remained an albatross around their neck.

An important part of that story related not just to the department of home affair’s five-year-old maladministration, but to how the current leadership of the department stepped in and did the right thing as soon as the Public Protector got involved.

Sadly, “good stories” and stories highlighting cases where public authorities have stepped up and done the right thing rarely grace the front pages of our mainstream press or are are “breaking news” on the airwaves. It is said that some simply view such stories as “sunshine journalism”, arguing that real journalism should be about exposing corruption, incompetence and gross wrongdoing.

But is it true that the public only needs news focusing on societal, particularly public sector, maladies? To answer this question we must go back to the right to freedom of expression, which is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed in our Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It has been said that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democratic rights and freedoms, and the lifeblood of democracy. Simply put, democracy is impossible without freedom of expression.
Our very own former president Nelson Mandela expressed a similar view in his address to the International Press Institute Congress in 1994 when he said: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.”

As may be gleaned from section 16 of our Constitution, one of the essential components of the right to freedom of expression is freedom of the press and other media. Now, why would the media get preference to other sectors of society, including business sectors? Literature on freedom of expression, elements of which have come to the fore during the national dialogues on state involvement in the regulation of the press and on the Promotion of State Information Bill, makes it clear that the media are accorded a protected space in recognition of the fact that it’s the main public medium through which the right to freedom of expression is exercised by the people.

Indeed, in modern states with vast populations and geographic spread, the only way to dialogue as a nation is through the media – be it print, broadcast or digital. It is simply impossible for the 50?million people of South Africa to engage in dialogue without the media. Access to information and the ability to disseminate information and ideas are essential for this purpose.

Now what does all this have to do with reporting good news and bad news? Let’s take dialogue on public sector performance. If only bad news, especially news about public maladies, was reported, the public may wrongly believe that the country is going to the dogs. Members of society may make important decisions based on this news – such as who to vote for, where to invest, where to live, whether to emigrate. We must accept that in this scenario citizens are making choices based on limited access to information, and that this is both anathema to true democracy and a restriction of the right to freedom of expression.

One of the points made in the Public Protector submission to the Freedom of the Press Commission is that freedom of expression, incorporating freedom of the media, includes the right of the people to receive and to disseminate both good and bad news. This ensures that people engage meaningfully and make informed choices or decisions.

The need to disseminate good and bad news is not only about democracy and fundamental rights – conversations in society suggest that the media may be underestimating the power of good news.
This takes me to the two incidents in the recent past that inspired this article. Last week I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a function held to honour and pay tribute to excellence in the public sector. At the event, Ms Brigalia Bam and Dr Sam Motsuenyane were honoured with Lifetime Achievement Awards for public service excellence, while various organs of state received awards for various types of excellence.

It is not often that we sing the praises of public sector leaders. We are more familiar with the narrative of how appalling the state of civil service is and how incompetence, abuse of power and corruption reign supreme among those who swell the ranks of the public sector.

One of the things I observed was that the media were scarcely represented at this important event. Furthermore, none of the stories made headlines the following day and the event hardly got a mention in the weekend newspapers.
In contrast, a few days earlier, I had attended the launch of an important civil society initiative called Corruption Watch. The place was so packed with national and international media representatives that some had to stand.

This reminded me of one of the comments made by a participant following my delivery of a hard-hitting keynote address on leadership, corruption and maladministration to municipal managers last year. The participant wanted to know if there were no success stories as my speech had left many of them feeling there was no point in trying to make the system work as things had seemingly irretrievably broken down. Needless to say, I wished I had thought about the power of words as I prepared my speech and balanced my observations on systemic maladies with reflections on the many cases of service excellence and selflessness the Public Protector team encounters daily.

In Zulu we say “Inala ayihambi, kuhamba indlala”, which loosely translates to “Bad news travels fast”. But we also say “Ithemba alibulali”, which loosely translates to “Hope does not kill”. The reality is that the human spirit does need good news.

At the risk of being labelled an advocate of “praise-singing” journalism, I must hasten to point out that our media are doing very well and continue to play informational, educational and watchdog roles superbly. I cannot overemphasise how indebted my office is to the media, or the fourth estate as some call it. Most of the ground-breaking investigations that my office tackled last year were a result of very good investigative journalism.

I’m not saying everything is h

unky-dory, but a question has to be asked as to whether we, as a nation, have become pessimistic and unappreciative of the progress that has been registered thus far? Is it a mistake that elsewhere in the world, particularly on the African continent, our country is celebrated as a success story?

We must accept that freedom of the media, as part of the right of freedom of expression, carries the responsibility of not only informing accurately but also telling the whole story. While it may be true that scandal sells, the space accorded to the media dictates that public interest should be balanced with commercial interest. This is the only way of ensuring that freedom of the press and other media yields its potential of being a means of freedom of expression for all and, accordingly, the lifeblood of democracy.

In the context of public sector oversight, this in effect entails striking a balance between facing our demons and trading victory stories as a nation. If we all come to the party, positive spin-offs for our young democracy are guaranteed.

»?Madonsela is the Public Protector. She writes in her personal capacity

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