Many people were jailed, tortured and killed in the bitter struggle for media freedom. This right shouldbe cherished, Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan told a gala evening orgnanised by Sanef and the SABC to mark the Black Wednesday crackdown on the media.
Just over 30 years ago, Steve Bantu Biko was murdered in police custody – and then the apartheid regime thumbed its nose at world opinion by banning 17 organisations and two newspapers, The World and the Weekend World.
What occurred on October 19 1977 was unprecedented even by the standards of the apartheid regime which had acquired international notoriety for its repressive character.
Freedom of expression, an important dimension of which is media freedom, is one of the fundamental rights South Africans secured as a result of the democratic political revolution of 1994.
Media freedom is the outcome of more than one-and-a-half centuries of often hard-fought struggles, in which thousands lost their lives, suffered imprisonment, torture and assassination. These rights came at a great cost and should be cherished and defended by all of us, citizens and government alike.
The struggle for media freedom and the struggle against racial oppression and colonialism in South Africa have been integrally connected.
Thomas Pringle arrived from Britain in 1820 with settlers and he and John Fairburn established the South African Journal and the South African Commercial Advertiser in Cape Town. As a staunch abolitionist, Pringle was very critical of slavery at the Cape and was not averse to taking issue with the colonial government about its policy toward the indigenous people. After his newspapers were suppressed, he returned to Britain in 1827 where he continued his abolitionist activities, becoming secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society.
Biko was one of the outstanding representatives of a political tradition that has its roots in the Eastern Cape. He was born in Ginsburg, a stone's throw from King William's Town, the site of the first secular newspaper in an indigenous language.
John Tengo Jabavu, the father of African journalism in South Africa, established Imvo Zabanstundu in 1884 after parting company with the missionary publication, Isigidimi samaXhosa, the previous year and rose to become the leading voice for African aspirations in the late 19th century.
The power of the written word has been vindicated again and again by those who seek to control the flow of information among people.
Faced with the international scandal that the murder of Steve Biko became, the apartheid regime tried to conceal the truth.
The patent lies told during the inquest, crowned with the brazen verdict that no one was responsible for his death, even they knew, were unconvincing.
The media, and especially the oldest component of the mass media, the press, have played their role in bringing about a democratic order in this country. A number of outstanding South African journalists, including the late Percy Qoboza, Donald Woods and Anthony Heard, have received laurels from the international community. Brian Bunting, Govan Mbeki and Joe Gqabi, all of whom were associated with the serially-banned Guardian, received the Julius Fucik award from the International Organisation of Journalists for using their pens in the struggle against apartheid.
But the role of the South African media has not been consistently honourable.
While Pringle earned the wrath of the colonial government, there were other journalists and editors who served as the cheerleaders during wars of aggression against independent African kingdoms and later against the Boer Republics; during the 20th century the democratic voices of those who opposed racism and its terrible consequences were often drowned out by the vile proto-fascist propaganda that flowed from the pens of the likes of Hendrik Verwoerd; as recently as the 1980s well-known editors still felt no compunction about virtually congratulating the would-be-assassins responsible for blinding Judge Albie Sachs in one eye and blowing off his right arm.
An African novelist once compared "truth" to a powerful wrestler.
No matter how hard its adversary, "falsehood", tries to overwhelm it, "truth" refuses to yield.
And even when falsehood thinks it has overpowered "truth", "truth" gathers new strength and casts off "falsehood".
The truth is very powerful, yet it is also extremely elusive. No single person, no body of opinion, no political doctrine, no religious doctrine can claim a monopoly on truth. Securing the right of the citizen to express whatever opinion he/she subscribes to, as long as the exercise of that right does not harm others, remains among the missions pursued by all South African democrats. It is our collective responsibility to continue nurturing and defending that right.
The pioneers of the black press were among the founders of the ANC. They include the first president of the ANC, Dr John Langalibalele Dube, a distinguished educator who founded the Ohlange Institute and the newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal and the giant among African men of letters, Solomon Plaatje, the founder of Koeranta eaBatswana.
The value we place on a free, independent and outspoken press in democratic South Africa cannot be overstated. A free press can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. A free press can be the vigilant watchdog of the public against the temptation to abuse power.
This is all the more reason why the South African media should more accurately reflect the diversity and variety of viewpoints among our people. Media diversity remains one of the critical challenges facing South Africa and media owners, media workers and their organisations should be giving this greater attention.
Tension between those tasked with governing and the media, as purveyors of information and opinion, is one of the inevitable outcomes of democratic government. It is pointless to deny its existence and it is short-sighted to suggest that such betrays a secret ambition to censor the media on the part of government.
The ANC and the government it leads has nothing to fear from criticism. It shall not wilt under criticism or close scrutiny.
Robust debate can only help us to deepen our democracy. But debate is a two-way street which contributes to the health of a democracy by calling to attention those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people's expectations.
# This is an edited version of the Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan's key note address on "Black Wednesday" delivered at a special gala evening hosted in conjunction with the South African National Editor's Forum. This version was first published in The Star on 18 October 2007