Friday, October 15, 2010

Comment on the MAT and Media Freedom Day

by Themba Sepotokele

The not so helpful emotional response from media houses on the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and the insults hurled at journalists by some politicians have caused more harm than good on a simple debate about recourse.
Crying wolf where none exist has created a storm in the tea cup. Is it wrong for the governing party to ask for recourse if wronged by the media? I don't think so! What's actually wrong is to put the cart before the horse. Starting a debate on the recourse since the apology is all good and well. However, talking about jailing or fining journalists - while initially the matter meant for discussion - defeats the purpose of a debate.

The media’s emotional and knee-jerk reaction doesn't help at all. What is necessary is a healthy and sober debate on how to promote ethical journalism in the fourth estates. The media is not perfect and will not be perfect because it is driven by human beings who in their nature are prone to err. Does making a genuine mistake then calls for a jail term or a fine? I don't think so!

It is however, in rare cases where the media itself should have punished charlatans in their mist. I mean dishonest journalist such as Ashley Smith and his cohorts. Those who have been in journalism long enough can attest that we have journalists who have plagiarized stories and some who concocted stories. The problem is that they get recycled and rewarded within the same industry. Without mentioning names, the guilty are known.

When the Washington Post found than one of its reporters, Jason Blair had plagiarised stories, he was named and shamed.

With regards to Smith, he was defended to the tilt until he made a confession. This shows that Smith was protected but shamed after his confession.

As for those calling for punitive measures because they believe to have been wronged, throwing journalists to jail for uncovering corruption within their circles would lead to a state of anarchy, a banana republic we don’t want. Why prosecute journalists for doing their job?

Journalists are there to ask tough questions to those in power and they should account in state of fighting the media. We should find an amicable solution in dealing with challenges facing the media and government rather than resort to fist-fighting.
A journalist-friend who spent his time in exile once asked:

“What happens when you look yourself in the mirror and find that you have acne? Do you break the mirror or treat acne?”

Surely, prosecuting journalists won't stop corruption in the echelons of power and will lead to less accountability by those in higher office.

Therefore in approaching the debate on recourse for reckless and malicious journalism, there is a need to find a common ground. Journalists should strive for accuracy, objectivity and fairness.

Those who are embedded consciously or unconsciously should review their sources and their intention. Ongoing training of journalists is vital.

For those in power, they should remain squeaky clean. Most importantly is to build the bridges between the media and elected representatives.

Emotional discussions and blackmail by the fourth estate is not the answer; neither is calling journalists 'dogs' as evidenced in one conference.

There's a need to unpack what it really means to strengthen the Ombudsman Office with a view of contributing to media freedom and a democratic society.

As we celebrate media freedom day I take comfort and solace from –US third president Thomas Jefferson who said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

I have a firm believe that despite some tension between the media, government and the governing party there’s no intention to muzzle the media. Let the debate continue!
The writer is a former journalist and now a Gauteng-based government communicator and a media trainer attached to the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership at Rhodes University. These are his personal views.


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