No other truly democratic government in the world launches as many
attacks on the media as in South Africa, writes Rob Handfield-Jones in
an open letter to the Minister in the Presidency, Essop Pahad.

Rob Handfield-Jones writes:

Good Day,

Subject: Minister Pahad's latest attack on the media

I am an editor of a newspaper, but I write this in my personal capacity and would very much like it to be forwarded to Minister Essop Pahad and others in the Presidency.

Minister Pahad is quoted by SAPA as saying the following: ""Shrill voices" claiming that media freedom in South Africa was under threat were doing so "without a shred of evidence". Freedom of the media is not held at the pleasure of governments."

I wish to make two statements in direct response to this: firstly, that no other truly democratic government in the world of which I am aware launches as many constant, ongoing attacks on the media as does ours. These attacks are often blanket criticism using a nebulous concept of "the media". If government has a particular issue with a particular reporter, editor or publication, it should say so. Generalisations do not assist at all.

Secondly, Minister Pahad is factually incorrect and I will provide the "shred of evidence" which he was quoted as referring to: Reporters sans Frontieres' annual Press Freedom Index lists South Africa at 43rd in the world, down from 26th in 2002. Our Press Freedom Index of 13.0 is also the lowest it has ever been. While it is possible this is due to interference from the private sector, it is unlikely – attacks on the media from this quarter are almost unheard of.

Therefore it is realistic to conclude that this dramatic fall in Press Freedom is due to the actions (or lack thereof) of government. It is also worth noting that the style of government changes from fully democratic, in those countries at or near the top of RSF's list, to dictatorial towards the bottom. This refutes Minister Pahad's statement that freedom of the media is not held at the pleasure of governments. Indeed, the truth is that there is a demonstrable relationship between the style of a government and the freedom of its country's media.

In my own particular field of speciality, road safety journalism, every fact, figure and statistic demonstrates unequivocally that government has lost control of road deaths altogether and is doing little to rectify the situation. Regardless of what Minister Pahad would like, not only will I continue to expose government's ineptitude in this regard, I will escalate my criticisms when acknowleged experts in the field of traffic safety are ignored by government, even when they propose road safety solutions which have been proven to reduce collisions by 50% or more in private sector application. (In fairness, this is not a new problem, but it IS one which has plumbed new depths of despair in the last ten years.) However shrill Minister Pahad may find my voice, it will not go away until I have something
positive to report about road safety. This might take some time: road deaths have doubled since 1997 and one's risk of dying on our roads, according to international road safety measures, has also increased by half. None of this is speculation: it is all proven fact and comes straight from the government's own statistics on road safety.

Minister Pahad's other quoted statements suggest he has forgotten that government does not exist merely to confirm the results of the ballot box, but to provide a service to the electorate. It can be argued convincingly that a wide range of the services and leadership initiatives which government should be implementing are abject failures and mired in ignorance, corruption and vested personal interests. One of the functions of the media is to hold government accountable for such actions.

Accountability is unquestionably a painful process to those being held to it,  but by its ongoing attacks on the media, government is demonstrating an inability or refusal to engage with the media constructively. Government's current approach is unlikely, in my opinion, to bring about an improvement in the standard of journalism and indeed impugns the profession and poisons
democracy by creating the public perception that the entire media is incapable of factual accuracy and has an anti-government agenda.


* Rob Handfield – Jones is editor of Caxton’s AutoDealer, but writes this in his personal capacity. He’s on email This letter was sent to the Presidency.