Media freedom goes with responsibility, Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad told the Goedgedacht Forum recently.

Minister in the SA Presidency Essop Pahad told the Goedgedacht Forum:

“The media, free to inform or disinform?”
by Dr Essop Pahad,
Minister The Presidency
Presented at Goedgedacht Forum,
Malmesbury, Western Cape.
Thursday, February 22, 2007 _______________________________________________________

Thank you for inviting me to be present with you today. The theme you have chosen is, with all due respect, somewhat disingenuous and difficult to take at face value. After all, in a free and democratic society like ours, the media must always be free to inform. This is a fundamental freedom that is constitutionally enshrined. But the freedom to disinform runs counter to democratic norms and principles and in fact does more harm to the public good and does not in any way promote the public interest. When the media does misinform, it must, like other institutions in society be held to high standards and must be held accountable. Freedom of the press is certainly one of the central defining features of the contemporary era, but it cannot be used to justify, the right of the press to misinform. Misinformation erodes trust and undermines the very credibility that the media strives valiantly to maintain. Trust as we all know is difficult to gain and easy to lose, and with the loss of trust comes the loss of credibility which is the very foundation of the media in a democratic society.

The word “disinform”, surely, assumes the right to tell untruths or to mislead. In other words, it means the right to lie – or, to get as close to telling deliberate untruths, and not merely what one might refer to as accidental terminological inexactitudes. In this sense the right to disinform – intentionally or otherwise cannot be a right. Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, in his autobiography, A Good Life, (Page 431), had this to say on misinformation:

“Our most serious mistakes occur when we relay misinformation given us by others – presidents, spin doctors, or ignoramuses. And here lies the heart of our dilemma: we write only the rough draft of history, in the vivid words of Phil Graham. We claim to print the truth. We have led our readers to expect the truth. We have trouble with Albert Camus’s realization that ‘there is no truth; only truths’. We don’t cope with the reality that the truth often escapes us.

“Because our sources lie. Because our sources are themselves ill-informed, misinformed, or incompletely informed. Because deadlines force us to stop reporting, and start writing, before the truth has emerged out of the maelstrom of conflicting eyewitness accounts, clashing spin doctors, and the angers of partisan politics…. The fact is that the truth does emerge, and its emergence is a normal, and vital, process of democracy.”

Bradlee is pointing an important dimension of the right to misinform – unintentional misinformation because the sources lie and misinform or are simply ill informed. But is this acceptable? The Star’s Code of Ethics, notes that “The public’s right to know about matters of importance is paramount”. So should the public interest be sacrificed because of intentional or unintentional misinformation? Given the power of the media and the audiences it reaches, the reproduction of misinformation has serious consequences. Misinformation does great and very increasing harm to the right to inform. How do we measure the harm created by the spreading of misinformation and is it lesser or greater than the paramount importance of the public’s right to know? And who judges the media in this respect? And how does the public know the information is false? And what harm does it do to the very credibility of the media itself? After all, the Star does state that “Sources of news should be identified unless there is good reason not to “and “Facts should be checked carefully”. And in fact naming the source is one of the best antidotes to misinformation.

The notion that facts should be checked carefully is at the heart of good solid investigative journalism. We need investigative journalists for they are the critical thinkers, they expose scandals in both the public and private sectors, they challenge orthodoxy and they are the true watchdogs who more often than not are the real guardians of the public good. Anton Harber recently noted that “Most current newspapering is about giving readers what they want to hear or telling them what others think they should hear. Investigative reporting is about shouting out what those in power and authority don’t want heard”(Business Day, 14/02/07).But the shouting out must be on the basis of facts hat have been repeatedly checked, sources repeatedly verified and analysis that is rigorous.

Beyond misinformation, the process of making information about an event intelligible in the media is a social process. First someone (ultimately the editor) determines what is newsworthy and determines if a particular story is to be followed. In this sense, the event, even before it is fully captured has already gone through one filter – that of choice determination. The second critical filter is the actual packaging of the story. Facts are important to a story but facts only make sense in relation to other facts within a broader conceptual framework. Who packages the facts? How are they juxtaposed? Third no one, not editors or sub-editors (who may edit a story), nor reporters (who write a story) are free of bias. How does their ideological predisposition influence the way information is transmitted in the media – whether a story is used or not, where a story is placed in the paper, what headline is used, how the story is edited, how responses to the story are accepted or rejected? The list of questions about the right to inform and the right to hold the media accountable for what it reports on are endless.

For the purposes of today it is important to situate the right to inform, in a broader context – where freedom of the press intersects with social responsibility.

The right to inform is an integral part of the freedom of the press which is essential to democracy, it is sacrosanct, it must be protected, it must be defended and it must be nurtured. There in an intrinsic relationship between democracy and freedom of the press. Democracy promotes and protects freedom of the press while a free press in its guardian role with respect to both the public good and the public interest, promotes democracy, accountability and responsibility. Where government derives its legitimacy and right to rule and make public policy based on the will of the people as expressed in general elections, it is not clear where the media derives its role as the guardian of the public good – given that its relationship to its readers (particularly) is a market relationship.

But the relationship between the media and government conducted always in a climate of mutual respect is often variously cooperative, conflictual, easy and characterised by healthy tension. Each needs the other – the media needs “the story” and government officials need to get it out, but at all times the line between them is always firm.

The mass media in South Africa is a very powerful institution whose influence is both pervasive and invasive. Media images dominate the public landscape and even invade our private spaces (brand labels on T shirts for example).

The media play many complex roles simultaneously – they:

 Inform/educate
 Entertain
 Make money
 Are an avenue for expression and even for propaganda
 Produce & reproduce images
 Transmit values
 Set Agendas
 Act as Watchdogs and
 Bind communities

The generally accepted view of the media is that they are:

 An agency of Socialization
 Critical to social learning
 Vital to the political agenda
 Essential to democracy (rights and freedoms)
 Neutral; and
 “Guardians of public interest”

Freedom of the press in South Africa and elsewhere cannot be abstracted from history and from the socio-economic and political conditions within society at large. It is a freedom that has been fought for, and it is a freedom that is relatively new in South Africa. Under apartheid the overwhelming majority of the people of South Africa did not have the right to be informed.

Freedom of the press has been historically contested and is socially constructed. It exists in relation to law, power, differential access to power, and the social location of the media in relation to other institutions in society. Further, the more freedom of the press and the right to inform is contested, the greater is the realization that it is not an absolute freedom apart from Human Rights Legislation, or from the long arm of the courts.

Freedom of the press is not an unfettered right and this suggests that there are limits on its exercise. The question is where are the limits, who decides where the limits are set and who enforces the limits. And as the media gets more diverse, conflicting interpretations of freedom and questions about the appropriate balance between two equally legitimate freedoms: freedom of the press and other freedoms as well as social responsibility will arise. It is not clear how for example freedom of the press and the public’s right not to be misinformed are reconciled – especially where misinformation has harmed an individual or a community. Do they exist in parallel, are they hierarchically ordered, or does one consistently trump the other? This forum could usefully debate such subjects.

One of the most intriguing questions about the role of the media to inform is how the decision to inform, and what to inform about is specifically taken? Do the media simply give its readers and viewers what they want? Do they structure choices – by determining what is “newsworthy”? Do the media tell readers and viewers what to think or what to think about and how to think about the information? And how is a story mediated by a raft of filters before it actually is printed?

The right to inform is essential for society but it does not exist as an end in itself. It is to advance:

1. The public good;
2. The freedom of the press;
3. Probing enquiry and
4. The timely dissemination of the results of investigative journalism

General discussions about the right to inform lack the kind of analytical precision that many seek. What is its relationship to the autonomy of the journalist or the autonomy of the editorial board? How does it interface with the commercial demands of profitability, and the influence the corporate world exerts through advertising revenues?

Misinformation has a detrimental effect on the exercise of freedom of the press, and undermines the right to inform. The concept of freedom of the press therefore needs to be reshaped. In undertaking such a reshaping, members of the media writ large, need to recognize the complex interplay between social responsibility and freedom of the press as reconcilable and as coexisting in an uneasy juxtaposition.

The question is whether the media can be expected, voluntarily and under no hint of duress from democratic government, to exercise any restraint and, if so, to what extent – in their daily bulletins, reports, comments, cartoons, pictures and offerings to the public generally. I would suggest that there are some bounds for the media, in the same way that there are bounds for government, which are best observed. The establishment of these boundaries, the so called codes of ethics for the media are best developed by the media. However where they run afoul of other rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution it will definitely be up to the Constitutional Court to rule on the resolution of conflicting rights.

What this forum can usefully discuss is what circumstances may exist, in normal times, which make it possible for citizens to expect responsible conduct from the media. Are there assumptions to be made about the media’s responsibility as a corporate citizen which should, in any degree, override an otherwise unchallenged right to free expression? At the Sun City talks between government and SANEF some years ago, this was one of the key points on which agreement could not be reached, despite considerable discussion. Maybe it never can. But it is an issue that might be touched on usefully here.

The best way out of this contested space is simply to rely on the internal professional standards employed by media. There are, indeed, codes and principles adopted by individual newspaper houses which guide their conduct. There is the code of conduct which, down the years, has covered the Press Council, under its various titles. There are in-house codes, such as the Staff Policy Guide of the Sunday Times, which sets out the standards by which they operate and which relies to some extent on the Press Ombudsman’s Code of Conduct, but has, for instance, special arrangements for reporting matters of race, religion and cultural difference. According to the Code,

Sunday Times staff
• Will act independently when reporting issues of race but will take note of sensitivities regarding race, or other issues, in their work;
• Will report on these issues where there is a demonstrable public interest; when race is the central issue of a story, racial identifications should be used only when they are important to readers' understanding of what has happened and why it has happened;
• Will not unjustifiably offend others in reporting on sensitive issues relating to race, religion or cultural difference;
• Will not use language or pictures that are offensive, reinforce stereotypes or fuel prejudice or xenophobia;
• Will actively seek diversity in sources, which should represent the entire community;
• Will be sensitive to cultural differences and values and will actively seek to ensure that reporting takes these considerations into account;
• Will not, in crime reporting, make mention of the race or religion of the victim or the alleged perpetrator unless that information is meaningful and in the public interest;
• Will uphold the newspaper’s principles of fairness, especially when dealing with issues of race; and
• Will, in dealing with the public, be sensitive to cultural differences and not conduct themselves in any way that may unnecessarily offend.
• South Africa is a multiracial and multicultural society, and we have to portray different practices and beliefs in a fair and honest manner in our reporting, gathering, editing and presentation of information.
These are all very laudable, particularly in a diverse, multicultural, multi-racial, multi-faith country like ours. But they do point to the justifiable limits on the freedom of the press and the right to inform and in fact amount to a self-imposed qualification on the absolute freedom enjoyed under the Constitution. They, axiomatically, must operate against assuming any right to disinform or misinform, to come back to the title of this discussion.

But government should be at liberty to comment on them, to draw attention to occasions when, in our view, they have been transgressed; and to expect newspaper editors or the disciplinary machinery to do something about this. That should be seen as high expectation on the part of government, not threat or “action” against media. It has always struck me how everyone, but everyone, is expected to take part in robust debate in SA, including media handing out the sharpest criticism of government, but when government assumes this right, in relation to the media, it is somehow out of line, even seen as seeking to curb media freedom. There is no such thing. Constitutionally, this is not possible, outside of the clear and present emergency arrangements that might apply, but temporarily. We have a robust debate for all. That robust debate is an inherent part of – in Ben Bradlee’s words – letting the truth emerge.

Thus, in its simplest articulation, freedom of the press does not and can not include the right to misinform the public. Nor does it confer on the media the right to interfere in the rights and freedom of others. Those who have power in the media by virtue of their social location and by virtue of the medium itself have a responsibility to exercise the right to inform with the greatest of care. It is not sufficient to misinform on page 1 and then issue an apology a few days later, particularly when this appears hidden inside the paper. The harm has been done, the misinformation sticks. In this conception freedom of the press must be located in the context of social relations in society, it is not aloof from inequality of status and power differentials, and in this sense the media (despite a deep veneer of collegiality) is like any other workplace that is hierarchically structured.

Freedom of the press including the right to inform underpins and strengthens democracy, transparency and accountability. Government, in a democracy like ours, has to respect the fact of freedom of expression, subject to the Constitution and the law of the land. This freedom should not be held at the pleasure of governments; it should be embedded in democracy and needs to draws strength from the essential social contract that lies behind every democracy. There should be no question about this at all.

And the process of good governance is vastly assisted by having an alert, free, able, expert and totally independent media. That should never be at issue. It should be accepted as the best and only model. It is why our constitution-makers entrenched free expression in the way they did, together with other critically-important rights. There is no argument about that. Nor should there be any argument about government’s right to do its own communicating, in whatever constitutional and legal way it decides is best, so that it is able to keep in touch with the broad public – whether by print or the more mass-based electronic media – without mediation by others.

However there exist a number of threats to freedom of the press and they include (but are not restricted to:

1. The increasing corporatisation and concentrated ownership patterns of the media (nationally and globally)
2. The willingness of the media to accept government justification for example for acts of war without being critical for fear of being seen to be unpatriotic;
3. The uncritical acceptance of journalists being “embedded” in war zones;
4. The “tablodisation” of the press.

The media are first and foremost commercial enterprises that can run afoul of the marketplace and thus cease to exist. In an ideal world there would be no debate about the impact commercial interests (the need to make profit, the need to keep advertisers on board) have on information flow. But we do live in a world dominated by market share and so the question is very much alive. To quote Anton Harber again, “Most of our journalism is straightforward stenography – reacting to announcements and events by simply recording what was said without much analysis, context or criticism. In a world of public relations, when a massive industry has been created to try to direct and manage this flow of information, overwhelmingly it is the view of those with access to this machinery that are heard and seen in our media” (Business Day, 14/02/07).

The idea of “embedding” journalists in war zones or anywhere else controlled by governments is highly controversial, undesirable and counter-productive, since it strikes at their independence and their credibility. Safety in a war zone is one thing, but embedding seems to go way beyond this, and could suck the reporter into an imposed consensus and taint the veracity of the information that comes from the reporter. And this robs readers and viewers – and indeed governments – of the very thing they need to help make up their minds, a balanced and independent view of events.

There has recently been some published criticism of the “tabloidization” of the SA press. In the quest to increase readership and subscriptions, the tabloids, which have proliferated in South Africa pander to the lowest common denominator and out the window go truth, information, responsibility and critical analysis and commentary. This use of freedom of the press debases and trivialises. The fact that a newspaper is, physically, half the size of a broadsheet should surely not require a dropping of standards, when, for instance, court reporting becomes nothing less than voyeurism, where accidents and crime are milked of every sensational fact, where invasions of privacy are the order of the day; where journalism is turned into meaningless, staccato half-phrases and screaming, equally meaningless headlines. And it should be noted that tabloidization can happen to broadsheets, as well. The Media Monitoring Project (MMP) recently noted that:

“Tabloidisation of the news has been increasing for a number of years in South Africa, and is often typified by dramatic, personal and in many instances mythical reporting … tabloids have introduced newspapers to millions of new readers, and some provide informative content on the inner pages. Often the reporting in some of these tabloids is not only sensationalist in nature, lacking context and leading with shocking visuals and inflammatory headlines, but they are also blatantly sexist and frequently xenophobic. As a result journalistic practices of ethical conduct are sometimes sidelined by such tabloids. This leads to lower-quality news and less regard for human rights.

Coverage of race in the context of the tabloids is particularly problematic. Focused, clear and informative media coverage of race issues is particularly important in South Africa, given our history of racial segregation. The media has the ability to perpetuate and challenge stereotypes in South Africa. It is therefore particularly troubling to see coverage by media of race lacking this socio-historical context, as it often tends to support and perpetuate stereotypes. Some media are actively xenophobic, creating stereotypes of people from the rest of Africa which are dangerous, offensive and harmful” (
There is also the question of the extent and control of blogging, or citizens’ journalism; and the question of the way the media should handle this phenomenon, and – if necessary – edit or tailor it for readers so that it appears under some form of supervision. This question has been uppermost in world media circles for some time, as have the broader issues of the right relationship between print media and what appears on the web. What restrictions, if any, should there be on reading the full story in the electronic medium?. To give full web access to the daily offerings of a paper, rather than to require enrolled subscription or some other hurdle to do this, seems preferable – and can only enrich the two-way flow between print and electronics. Papers such as the Guardian in the UK appear to have gone a long way to ensuring a good marriage between print and web, to the benefit of both; and some South African papers give more ready access to their website information than others also to their benefit. This is worth some attention at a forum like this, perhaps.

South Africa is an incredibly diverse society, and members of historically marginalized and disadvantaged groups are asserting their right to be heard in the media. But the overwhelming majority has no control over whether their voices will carry. How does a free press allow other voices to enter the debate? Through letters to the editor? Through the utilization of complaints procedures? Through op ed pieces, unsolicited as well as solicited? The irony is that the press uses its power as a gatekeeper to determine which voices are heard and which are suppressed. The harsh irony lies of course, in deploying the press using the discourse of freedom of the press to repress alternative voices of criticism.

In this conception of freedom of the press the demands and calls for social responsibility and accountability are not marginalized but are central. The discourse of “traditional” freedom of the press is used in a “regulatory capacity” to deflect criticisms and reassert the right of the media to its freedoms.
The debate about the relationship of freedom of the press and social responsibility to a high order code of ethics and the strict enforcement of the code actually masks what is really occurring – the media globally and not just in South Africa, are in the midst of a profound social revolution which is prompting a “social order crisis” for them. As more people challenge what they read and hear they demand that the media as an organization address its organizational culture, its ways of doing things, whose speech is protected, whose ideas are validated and deemed worthy of debate, whose voices are heard and how these voices are legitimated or de-legitimated.

In conclusion let me say that freedom of the press has a corresponding social obligation and is not free of social costs. Freedom of the press to inform and social responsibility ought not to be seen as hostile and antagonistic; they are about rights and reciprocal obligations. The tie that binds freedom of the press and social responsibility is accountability – making and holding the media accountable to their readers, viewers and society at large.

Freedom of the press is a hard won freedom that needs to be protected and it ought not to be fritted away by the frivolous right to misinform. The issue is not whether freedom of the press is rooted in a philosophical tradition and has emerged from a chequered history; rather, the issue more frontally is whether the current iteration of the right to inform as enjoyed by the media in liberal democratic market based societies needs to be located within a social and political context. If the answer is yes then the next question is how the media deal with the challenges and tensions generated by the competing values of freedom and social responsibility. How do the media reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable?
The definition of freedom of the press has to be self consciously socially constructed and it has to be self conscious about its limitations in the face of the Constitutional. In addition to what it currently covers, it has to be cognizant of power, human rights, social responsibility, reciprocity, respect and professional integrity. Anything short of this means that we are doomed to repeat forever the destructive debate that pits freedom of the press against other fundamental freedoms in our society.
And allow me to be bit more provocative and ask “What does it mean to talk of freedom of the press in a stratified society with multiple layers of inequality?” Given that freedom of the press does not exist apart from social relations and is in fact mediated and determined by institutional and structural arrangements, reconstituting the media as a “social entity” as a bearer of rights which has obligations, is the basis on which to reconcile freedom of the press and social responsibility. As bearers of rights it falls on members of the media to challenge current orthodoxy, whether it is around the definition of freedom of the press or whether it is around the right to inform or misinform.

Thank You.