The desire to see transformation in the media is an understandable one, but care should be taken not to jeopardise hard-won media frreedoms, writes SA Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe. He was responding to a joint statement from the SABC, Human Rights Commission, Media Development and Diversity Agency and others calling for various steps to be taken to press transformation in the media.

Comments from Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, in reaction to resolutions at an October 19 commemoration organised by the Media Development and Diversity Agency, the Commission for Gender Equality, SABC, SA Human Rights Commission and the Independent Communications Authority in Johannesburg last week.

As an African and as one who has been intimately involved in the struggle for media freedom all my adult life, I do understand the sentiments behind the resolutions taken at the October 19 commemoration of Media Freedom Day at the Human Rights House in Johannesburg.

People who have ostensibly been liberated for over 15 years, many in our country, still feel marginalised: they are desperate to see the fruits of that liberation. They will ask why they are still without jobs, without houses, without proper toilets and running water.

And they will obviously ask questions such as: Why am I not reflected in the media? Why is my voice still suppressed? Has anything changed in the media industry? Why do I have to travel for tens of kilometres to get a copy of a newspaper that town folk find at their doorstep?

Legitimate questions.

The answers unfortunately are not to be found in knee-jerk responses that go against the very constitution that liberated us. We need to start with a sober analysis of where we are and why we are there and then go to a search for solutions that don’t trash the very foundation of our liberation.

The South African Constitution says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression.” This means that in our new democracy no action will be taken against people or publications because the government or some sections of our society don’t agree with their opinions. I might hold a different opinion from yours; we both have the right to express those opinions. One opinion does not rise above the other because of my status in society or because of the colour of my skin.

The only limitations that the constitution lays down are that my opinion must not be propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

Our society is a marketplace of ideas. Freedom to express myself is the foundation of my liberation.

This freedom of expression that the Constitution guarantees includes “Freedom of the press and other media”. Looked at in another way, if anybody limits the freedom of the media, he or she will be limiting all citizens’ freedom of expression, all citizens’ rights. We would be resurrecting Jimmy Kruger, who closed the World, Weekend World, Pro Veritate and 19 black consciousness organisations.

If anybody tells the press what they may or may not publish, he or she is taking away the editor’s freedom to decide what to publish or what not to publish. He or she limits my freedom of expression as a citizen of this country.

A statutory media tribunal, as proposed in the ANC’s Polokwane conference communications resolution, the very idea resuscitated in the October 19 forum, suggests a code imposed on the media from the outside. The editor’s freedom of expression is yanked away by an outside institution.

This differs radically from the current South African Press Code, which was not imposed by an outside institution but was voluntarily adopted by close to 700 publications across the country ranging from tiny community papers to major national newspapers and magazines.

As Press Ombudsman I can hold them to what they have publicly chosen to do and that is the logic of freedom of expression and our country’s constitution.

Among the recommendation from this October 19 forum were (cut and pasted here from the media release after the dialogue):
• the resumption of discussions on the establishment of a Media Tribunal;
• the drawing up of a media charter in accordance with BBEE Act to draw on the provisions, objectives addressed today to ensure media compliance with legal provisions;
• that agencies such as ICASA, the banking sector; MDDA; the departments of Trade and Industry, and Communication need to come on board; to ensure that there is a review on content creation (Transformation of content??), ensure the promotion of the use of indigenous languages, preservation of culture – (preservation of indigenous languages);
• that the office of the Press Ombudsman be adequately resourced (financially including skilled personnel);
• that government departments take the lead in communicating their programmes such as the Integrated Development Planning processes;
• that the media should portray more diverse and positive range of images and realistic gender roles, and not perpetuate stereotypes;
• that the Print Media Code of Practice should be aligned with the legislation, international protocols and agreements. Regulatory bodies, Chapter 9 institutions should ensure compliance with these obligations;
• that Chapter 9 institutions, the Women’s Ministry and all progressive men and women in the media be encouraged to be more visible and vocal in the media on issues degrading women;
• that media practitioners be trained on how to report on gender related issues, this could help to transform the way in which they conceptualise gender issues;
• that there is a need to look into children’s programming and content on print  – advocate for an increase;
•  to ensure that children with disabilities issues are addressed and included; ensure that disability across media remains visible – “Nothing about us without us”, people with disabilities should be part of content creation;
• that the departments of Communication and Education should bring media literacy into the school curriculum;
• that programming should accommodate people in rural areas because most of it is currently urban focussed;
• that there is a need to address challenges relating to research, ownership, language and culture;
• that children should be part of editorial decision making processes and children’s content needs to be re-examined as most of it is currently frivolous;
• that the budget for the creation of children’s content be increased;

At first glance, all are driven by laudable and worthy sentiments.

But once you look again you quickly realise that some of the recommendations could detract from the liberation that we all fought so much for.

The same logic holds for other issues in the recommendations: gender equality, Children’s rights, and the rights of people with disability. Lobby the media, lobby Parliament, lobby society in general, but don’t impose a view to the extent that you take away freedom of expression – it is too precious a right that we all have.

We should be analysing more thoroughly – be asking why the MDDA has achieved better progress in radio than it has done in television and print, why black entrepreneurs and investors are not keen to put their money in media – before we start pointing fingers. We should be taking it to the level of asking why black participation in the JSE is much weaker than it is in the media.

All these questions should lead us to exploring more effective ways of addressing the concerns about media in our society.

* This statement was released on 29 October 2009.