The media can't insist that the government put its house in order while we don't try to fix our own problems, writes Zubeida Jaffer in The Star.

Zubeida Jaffer writes in The Star:

SABC board member Christine Qunta is to be commended for setting the cat amongst the pigeons. Her recent article about the role of the media in society has placed the spotlight on journalism as a profession. It has rightly been said that there is a great deal of consternation within and outside the profession about what constitutes best journalistic practice.

This weekend's news of pending charges against the Sunday Times editor and one of his journalists further accentuates the concern.

Thirteen years into our new democracy, we have successfully established the legal parameters of our craft. We have constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech, respect for the rule of law and acceptance that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. The Broadcasting Act and various other laws spell out noble principles to guide our work. We know what we want to do. The argument now is about how this must be done.

What Qunta is arguing is that there are two different world views in South Africa – black and white. She argues that the black view is essentially excluded from the media.

Her arguments ring true to many. Take for example the local newspaper in Cape Town where I live. When I open certain sections, there are many days when one would be wont to believe that only white people live in Cape Town. There is nothing that reflects the cultural perspectives of people of colour.

This constitutes a very real problem. It is not only exclusion by omission but exclusion of an entire body of thinking. In the Cape, we are more likely to hear the thinking of Mayor Helen Zille than the many others in the city who have a completely different viewpoint to hers.

Does this not speak to the way in which we in the media are doing our jobs? Should we not be scrupulously fair, reflect that there are widely differing viewpoints on a particular matter if this be the case and create the space for a conversation to take place? How do we best do this?

At this point, we should be clear about the broad principles that the constitution binds us to. The difficulty we seem to have is the detail of how we practice our craft and achieve the vision we have committed ourselves to. And the vision is most certainly one of a commitment to a non-racial, non-sexist democracy. Pitting whites against blacks or suggesting that some are more African than others is a path that many have trod over the past century.

This path was formalised politically through the establishment of the Pan-Africanist Congress. It is ironic that precisely at the moment when this organisation has sadly slid into obscurity, the absolutism of the Africanist perspective is once again rearing its head. It is a perspective that has its merits but within the South African context has been been rejected over and over again.

While it is weak as an organisational formation, it remains firmly embedded in our national life as a train of thought as exemplified by Qunta. It cannot be otherwise because of the history of white supremacy.

White supremacy and the continuation of this in the economic sphere and the dominance of it within the skills base of this country whip up these reactions.

At the same time, if we choose this path of reducing our present problems to simply black-white tension, we will steadily go in the direction of polarising the country even further and this cannot be good for any of us. What is required from a media point of view is to grapple with how best to do our jobs, how to give expression to our constitutional obligation that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.
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And this requires exceptionally careful thought about denigration of individuals. It requires careful thought about everything that we do since we are the pioneers of a new democracy. Many others have planted the seeds of this new democracy. It has been left to us to figure out how to make it grow, how much water it needs. Too little water will make it slowly shrivel up and die. Too much water too will make it drown. How do we find balance or develop what Njabulo Ndebele refers to as the "art of the fine line"?

And it is not as if we do not have examples of journalistic best-practice developed in our own quirky South African way. Post-1994, there was the outstanding radio talk-show by Tim Modise, which later was transformed in the equally successful After Eight Debate with John Perlman and most recently we have seen the powerful work of Phylicia Oppelt, whose newspaper has exposed that babies were dying at unacceptably high levels at Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape.

If we make the effort to list outstanding stories that have been written and spoken over the last decade, it may just come as a surprise to many that we do have a substantial body of work to be proud of and to draw strength from.

Contrary to the government view that the media is bad, it would perhaps be an interesting exercise for the South African National Editors Forum and the SABC when they meet this week to encourage members to compile lists of well-crafted stories that meet the highest professional standards.

Every year, various awards identify some of these stories. But at the same time it may just be worthwhile and help journalists draw strength when they have collected in one place some this country's best work over the past decade.

Instead of keeping the spotlight on the highly professional story of the shocking deaths of our babies at Frere Hospital, we in the media have instead chosen to turn the spotlight on an individual politician and have allowed the conversation to become consumed mainly by individuals.

We have chosen to focus public attention on the politics of the politicians and not the politics of the people.

Our craft commits us to being the voice of the voiceless. Are we that voice, or are we the voice of those who are fighting those with voices, so that they in turn could be that voice?

Qunta has done us a favour by placing this debate strongly on the table. We cannot insist that the government put its house in order, when we are not busy getting ours in order. In light of National Press Freedom Day, commemorated this week, rigorous self-reflection could be the best contribution we could make to deepen our democracy.

Often it is hard to admit that each of us see but a part of the whole depending on where we find ourselves. Perhaps if we commit to cooperate and work for the common good, those little parts could come together to form a greater whole. Difference does not mean that a commitment to professionalism be sacrificed. Surely we all want to develop best practice that will suit our country?

The SABC does not have all the answers nor does the Sunday Times. Somewhere in between lie the choices that we must make so that we can perfect the "art of the fine line".

# Zubeida Jaffer is an award-winning journalist based at UCT's Centre for African Studies as a visiting associate.  This article first appeared in The Star on 18 October 2007.