Free press vital, but accountable

2008-05-12 00:00

THE role of a free press in a developing economy, such as that in South Africa, cannot be disputed.

Not an easy dynamic at the best of times, relations are further complicated by the media’s tendency to be pitted against government in an adversarial role. As is so evident in South Africa currently, the media are full of incriminating reports on the poor performance of government at national, provincial and local level.

This role extends to playing watchdog, as it did in reporting the shenanigans at the now discredited uMgungundlovu District Municipality. Such exposure serves not only to show up government’s inefficiency, but also hopefully to force an improvement.

Less clear cut is the media’s responsibility to report fairly. This is more easily said than done in the Fourth Estate, and more so in the context of contesting social and political influences.

At issue is the manner in which events are reported, bearing in mind the variances in news reports, feature articles, opinion pieces and columns. Not all news is the same, and sometimes a discerning hand is needed to ensure the story is told fairly.

This process effectively amounts to self-censorship and, while it mostly works satisfactorily, some stories do slip the net. The redress typically is a correction and an apology to suit the original mistake.

Then there are the calamities where a particularly poor article appears in print. Unlike a factual error or bad grammar that is dealt with relatively painlessly, this sort of story rips away the protective layers of a media organ without remorse.

It would expose a writer who didn’t do research and lazily cobbled together previously printed accounts, bad sub-editing and, worst of all, the editorial okay to publish.

A story in Rapport recently fell horribly foul of all standards, including that of checking facts. Evidently purporting to cast aspersions on commercial agriculture, the article attributes a series of high-profile racist actions to white farmers.

However, two of the incidents — dragging a man behind a bakkie and feeding a man to a lion — did not involve farmers, while the third case, that of a man being shot in a mistaken identity case, is not resolved.

The point made by Kobus Visser, the corporate liaison director of AgriSA, is that articles of this sort undermine the positive work by the organisation and its members and could be construed as hate speech.

Why, he asked, isn’t anything written about the Labour Department’s praise for farmers that found 16 of 17 farms visited in KZN recently to be compliant with labour legislation, and that “to the letter of the law”?

Could it be that good news stories simply are not noticed by the media?

Land and reform

A REPORT by the credible Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) put paid to one of government’s bogeys, that of white farmers thwarting land restitution by inflating prices.

The CDE said that overall prices for restitution payments increased by 1,1% per annum between 2003 and 2006. Of greater concern, said the CDE, is that false perceptions about price manipulation could lead to poor policy decisions.

The answer, according to the CDE, is to speed up land reform by establishing an action-orientated partnership to deal with land issues in general.

Put differently, government must stop blaming others for its inefficiencies and get its own house in order.

Small comfort

IT is small comfort to learn that South Africa is considered the 11th most vulnerable of 40 emerging markets. Ratings agency Standard and Poor blamed the vulnerability on a ballooning current account deficit (7,3% of GDP) and the widening gap between export revenue and import costs.

Most vulnerable is Iceland, also because of a huge current account deficit, followed by Lebanon and Romania. Chile is rated the least vulnerable on account of superlative financial management, followed by China and Venezuela.

Petrol rip-off

HARD-PRESSED motorists would appear to be unwittingly abetting a fraudulent scam involving unscrupulous fuel attendants and opportunistic minibus taxi drivers.

It would seem that attendants take unclaimed cash slips whenever a motorist refuels and sell these slips to taxi drivers, who add them to their own and claim a bigger subsidy amount from the government.

Talk about slip-streaming the fuel price!

Last word

THE difference between interest and commitment is that when you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it is convenient. When you are committed to something, you accept no excuses.

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