A free press is vital, but media accountability is key

Dear President,

We gather that on Friday, 19 October 2018 you will be meeting with the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF), the leaders of our media fraternity.

There may be some who regard the traditional media instruments being less important, with the increasing access to social media.
Cde President, you presided over the drafting of our Constitution and are therefore well versed with the underlying values that place press freedom at the centre of our emancipation as a nation.
We can assure you, Mr. President, that the African National Congress (ANC) and the overwhelming majority of South Africans regard a free and just press as a necessary ingredient for a vibrant and active democracy.

We are happy that you will be meeting with SANEF, a couple of days after the country would have observed Black Wednesday, recalling Wednesday 19 October 1977, when the apartheid government banned The World, Weekend World and Pro Veritate for being the voice of the voiceless. These newspapers fearlessly exposed the harsh reality of apartheid and served as a medium for the expression of the aspirations of millions of South Africans.

In our struggle against apartheid, a handful of activists and freedom fighters were members of the fourth estate, like Sol Plaatjie, Beyers Naude, Ruth First, Percy Qoboza, Sam Mabe, Mono Badela, Can Themba, Sam Nzima, Aggrey Klaaste and many others.

In the 1980s the apartheid state tried to suppress the media, whilst monopoly capital tried to dominate it.  A plethora of civic, youth, student, religious and sporting structures were established within the United Democratic Front (UDF). These local organisations published a number of newsletters, information leaflets and pamphlets, graphic art and posters at a grassroots level.
Mr. President, the seeds of a free and just press culture was cultivated within the bosom of the ANC-led liberation movement.  The remarkably high standards of reporting, analysis, investigative journalism, and editorial practices were established in the independent media of the ANC-led liberation movement.  Many a journalist would talk about the influence of the ANC’s Radio Freedom, as well as its publications like Staffrider, Sechaba, and Grassroots.

Mr. President, the ANC’s history reveals that a free and just press is a principled belief and not a tactical one.  It is the ANC that insisted that our country’s Constitution entrenches and protects the media.

We hope that when you meet with SANEF, Mr President, you will remind them of this proud history and assure them that if press freedom is ever under attack, they can be assured that the ANC will join the media at the battlefront to burn down the barricades of suppression.
But we must be careful as we recall history that we do not put forward a narrative that belies the current reality.  We must openly acknowledge that relations between the ANC and the media are not as positive as it should be.  Quite often it seems that we are talking past each other.
There must always be a critical relationship between the governing party and the media.    It cannot and should not be a collusive one.  Otherwise that would defeat the aims and objectives of the principle of a free and just media.
A critical relationship is required not a hostile one.  Too often it seems like the media are trained to believe that all politicians only know how to lie and steal.  Whilst the perception within political circles, is that the media is only interested in setting traps so that they can embarrass politicians, rather than being a platform for diverse opinion and reporting the news.  This is not a healthy environment.
Mr. President, the ANC is aware that party activists who do wrong and risk exposure by the media, will very often try to deflect and make the media the problem not their ill-discipline.  We must be wise to this, and not allow a perspective that wishes to blame difficulties experienced within the party on the media.  And as the ANC, we will openly admit that there have been times where we have exercised a little too much caution in our engagements with the media.  Therefore, please pass on the message to our friends in SANEF that we will try not to be too cagey and hesitant in our future engagements with them.
I am sure you would agree with the ANC, Mr. President, that our country needs a strongly independent media.  There may be some who support some type of Orwellian Big Brother world and want to control the media, but the ANC is not one of them.  A ruling party and a government must be held to account.  The media is an effective instrument to hold them accountable.  This is a very important responsibility placed on the shoulders of the media.  There is a fine line between attempting to hold the ruling party and government to account and on the other hand, being a pawn of political and commercial interests.
Media practitioners with a rudimentary understanding of independence will not detect this fine line and the responsibility to not breach it.
We are worried that too often the commercial interests of the media trump all other objectives.

Far too often, reportage by the mass media has veered off the path of objectivity and into the realm of speculation and gossip-mongering.

The media play a critical role in society, and are key to driving our programme of societal transformation.

If this important vehicle for advancing democracy is misused or abused, it morphs from being a platform for diverse opinion and reporting the news, into a toxic tool for waging political battles by proxy. This is not a healthy environment.

We are worried, Mr. President, about the fairness and ethics of the actual journalistic process within our media. As we write to you the rain clouds gather over our nation following the apology from the country’s largest weekend newspaper, the dependence on anonymous sources as the main (and sometimes only) for stories has serious pitfalls. The three-source rule cannot easily be verified, allowing exploitation of the media for sinister intentions.

Mr President,

Accountability of government is a cornerstone of democracy; likewise, the Fourth Estate should hold its own to account when excesses and breaches of ethics have been committed.

Commensurate with the growing calls for lifestyle audits for politicians and those holding public office: organizations such as SANEF should remain vigilant in the face of what may appear to be journalists and media practitioners abusing their journalistic privileges and access to privileged information for personal gain.
Perhaps it is time that SANEF seriously considers instituting lifestyle audits as a mechanism to increase accountability and ethics within the media fraternity.

Finally, Mr. President we wish you fruitful and productive engagements with our friends in SANEF.

Comradely Yours
Pule Mabe
ANC National Spokesperson
twitter: @pulemabe

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