Media freedom is an issue for everyone, Sanef chair Jovial Rantao told a gathering at Stellenbosch University.  He also took the opportunity to emphasise that the self-regulatory system embodied by the Press Council works well.

Sanef chair Jovial Rantao, the deputy editor of Ths Star, said:

There is a story of a novice diver who, in preparation for an expedition, takes advice from an expert on sharks.

The expert says to the novice: "Don't worry about the sharks you can see – worry about the ones you can't."

To illustrate his point, the expert went on to say: "Shark-attack survivors always say – 'I felt something hit me. I felt a tug on my leg. I felt something pull me under.'

"I felt. Never I saw. They never saw it coming."

So what's that got to do with media freedom, you may ask? Well, this is an ad about making sure you can see what's coming. The media are your eyes and ears on the world.

This is part of a creative for an advertising campaign by the South African National Editors' Forum. And the kicker, the payoff line for the creative, says:

"Media freedom guarantees your right to know, and participate in, your country. And that' s real democracy. Media freedom is your freedom. Insist on it."

This year, as SA commemorates the 31st anniversary of Black Wednesday, Sanef has intensified this campaign. On October 19 Sanef will join organisations in and around SA to remember the day apartheid minister of police Jimmy Kruger banned 19 newspapers and political organisations.

Sanef will heighten the MFYF (My Freedom is Your Freedom) campaign because our experiences in dealing with government and other parastatals, in particular on the Film and Publication Amendment Bill, have been instructive.

Through the legislation, the Department of Home Affairs wanted to curtail children's access to adult content. But in the execution of their noble task they remain blind to the danger the amendments poses to the media.

We are sad this piece of legislation, one of the many threatening media freedom, has been passed by the National Assembly, despite our protest that it will harm media freedom.

We plan to engage with the National Council of Provinces committee dealing with this legislation, and hope the offending provisions in the bill will be removed. We continue to engage home affairs in search of a solution, and if all else fails, plead with Kgalema Motlanthe not to sign this legislation into our statute books.

The bill is not the only piece of legislation we are concerned with. We are extremely perturbed by amendments to the National Keypoints Act.

We believe 2010 will benefit this country and its citizens, but remain concerned at the restrictions proposed by Fifa, through the Department of Trade and Industry.

In addition to restricting the use of a host of emblems, the media would, if this legislation goes through, be precluded from using words such as 2010 Fifa World Cup, World Cup 2010, RSA 2010, Football World Cup, Fifa World Cup, SA 2010, 2010 Fifa World Cup, Africa 2010 and Soccer World Cup.

Every journalist in SA must feel lucky. We must consider ourselves fortunate that we are not only living our history, but have the unique opportunity to record that history.

And it is recording that history that imposes massive responsibilities on the shoulders of journalist.

It is at times like these, when you go to bed with one president and wake up with another, that people will turn to the media for information on the latest developments, as well as an explanation of events and the personalities involved.

The media role is to provide this kind of useful information citizens can use in daily life; information that people can use to participate in a democracy.

The only way to provide information that people can trust and use is to practice, without fear or favour, the kind of journalism that institutions like Stellenbosch University teaches. The kind of journalism that will survive the test of time.

We are going through a difficult and exciting period in our country. Things are going to get even more spicy when we get into election mode.

It is at times like these the media play their full role, and become enemies of many politicians and political parties. Our answer to threats, empty or not, should be to practise the best and boldest journalism as never before. This is the journalism whose pillars are impartiality, balance, fairness and truthfulness.

Politicians do not like it when the media gets tough on them. They want only to see themselves in the pages of our newspapers, radio and TV news bulletins when they cut ribbons and usher the poor into their first houses.

What they do not want are stories on how tenders to build those houses were corruptly awarded, or that the houses were not built properly. It is at such times the politicians will attack the media and claim all sorts of things.

It is OK to be tough on politicians, but we also have to be tough on ourselves, asking tough questions and welcoming those who pose these questions to us.

We should do so because every question asked is an opportunity for us to take a look at ourselves, and ask: Have we stuck to the pillars of our profession?

"Have we practised journalism as taught by Professors Liz Rabbie, Guy Berger and Anton Harber, or have we done something else – and called it journalism?"

We should face these challenges, learn from them and grow. The only basis for growth, the only form of defence, is excellent journalism. Weak and unethical work often gives enemies of the media an opportunity to attack us, and puts us on the back foot.

There can be nothing wrong and everything right that after a decade of hard-won freedom our nation must pause and look at itself.

The media, a crucial part of South African life, has correctly not escaped the scrutiny. Sanef has welcomed debate on the role of the media in society, and the conduct of media … in particular the print media.

All of us will agree that for the media to play their full role in a democracy there are three prerequisites: private ownership, self-regulation and a media ethics regime.

We would also agree the media have to be independent to exercise rights under Section 16 of the Bill of Rights. If the media were subject to regulation from an outside tribune, they would not be free.

This however does not mean the media is above the law, or is a law unto itself.

The Press Ombudsman code states: "The basic principle to be upheld is that the freedom of the press/media is indivisible from and subject to the same rights and duties as those of the individual, and rests on the public's fundamental right to be informed, and freely to receive and to disseminate opinions."

The press is subject to the same laws – criminal and civil – as other people in society. If a journalist steals, he will be charged with theft, and if he defames another person, he or she can be sued.

Sanef strongly believes in self-regulation because statutory control of the media, in any country, often implies heavy-handed control, censorship or an encouragement of censorship.
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Sanef is strongly opposed to statutory control, because among others, organisations that may be the subject of investigations, such as government departments, will write the rules on how they may be covered.

For a self-regulation mechanism to work, the independent arbiter must carry sufficient weight to force culprits to comply with decisions. We are happy that this is indeed our experience in this country.

Our self-regulation system in South Africa works because it is underpinned by consensual ethical guidelines and codes of conduct. All media houses in South Africa have these codes and guidelines in place.

All of them have committed themselves to the ombudsman system. They have put in place an internal ombudsman system, and they will without exception co-operate with, and comply with, the decisions of the ombudsman.

We are also pleased that as of August 1, 2007 restructuring of the Press Ombudsman' s office has brought in greater public participation in the decision making of the ombudsman: six members of the council are media representatives and five, with the sixth as an alternate, represent the public. The same ratios apply to the Appeals Panel.

The chairperson of the Appeals Panel is retired Judge Ralph Zulman, formerly of the Appellate Division. When he adjudicates a case, he sits with one public and one media representative. The ombudsman also sits with one media and one public representative when he hears a case.

The media in South Africa have a genuine desire to improve their work. For us, the rigorous implementation of the basic principles of journalism – accuracy, fairness, balance and impartiality – are the first step.

The development of codes of conduct, ethical guidelines that balance media freedom and independence with responsibility further proves our commitment. Editors are determined these standards, which they set for themselves, must be applied consistently.

Publications have voluntarily subscribed to the code because they are committed to "the highest standards in print journalism".

The sanctions the Ombudsman imposes – correction, apology, etc – are strong, because the stock-in-trade of the media is credibility. The system also serves as an educational tool in the industry.

The strength of self-regulation is that through self-financing and home-grown codes of conduct, the media will be able to enhance editorial freedom, and head off potential political interference and legal constraints, which in turn may promote higher professional standards and greater responsibility.

However, there is a big role in all of this for the people we serve – our readers, listeners and viewers. These are the final judges of what we publish or broadcast.

These are the people who can vote with their feet.

Editors are acutely aware of the damage that unethical or unprofessional conduct, as well as crossing the lines of public acceptability, can inflict on their own credibility, and that of their publications and the organisations they work for.

The South African public have a crucial role to play in ensuring that the media adhere to the standards that they set for themselves.

The public should also hold the media accountable by making good use of the self-regulation remedies available to them.

n People must seek redress.

n People should challenge that which makes them uncomfortable.

n If the media gets facts wrong, as sometimes happens, they need to be taken to task. Correct facts must be presented to an independent adjudicator who will, if concurring with the complainant, force the newspaper to retract the offending article with the same prominence.

n It would have been great to see the arrival of new Press Ombudsman, Joe Tlholoe, greeted by a letter from the minister of health, or whomever in government was unhappy about the journalism practised in the publication of stories about the minister's conduct, past and present.

The report presented by the outgoing Ombudsman, Ed Linnington, is proof that South African media believe in, and is using, the self-regulation mechanisms.

But the Ombudsman's office can do with more.

In a country where the majority are poverty-stricken, self-regulation is the best option. It is faster, more accessible, more flexible and is cheaper.

Our ombud system works because:

  • The system is not controlled by government;
  • It is independently funded;
  • It is voluntary and underpinned by universal industry commitment;
  • It protects the rights of the individual;
  • It upholds freedom of expression, the public right to know, and the media' s right to publish without restraint;
  • It provides genuine, free and easy resolutions to complaints;
  • It is not overly legalistic or bureaucratic, while at the same time pursuing the principle of natural justice;
  • There is sufficient lay membership, independently selected on the strengthened adjudication panel;
  • The code of conduct and ethical guidelines have been written and approved by the industry itself;

Let us serve our communities well, and record the history that is unfolding before our eyes, with great aplomb.

Let us record the events, the people and everything that makes us this interesting nation, so that history does not judge us harshly.

*  Jovial Rantao is deputy editor of The Star, and chairman of the SA National Editors' Forum. This is the text of an address at Stellenbosch University to mark Media Freedom Day, which was yesterday, October 19. His address was published in The Star on October 20.