Monday, October 25, 2010

The Media Should Take Media Freedom Day Seriously

By Themba Sepotokele

As I entered the chastely centre near the Law Faculty at Wits University during the seminar on Media Freedom Day on Tuesday, October 21, I was greeted by rows and rows of empty chairs. I had hoped that the room would be filled to capacity as it was an important day for the media, especially with the discussion on the mooted Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill.

Earlier that day, there was a session addressed by Professor Kader Asmal and veteran journalist Joe Latakgomo which I missed due to unclear information circulated about the events of the day, thanks to the organisers of the event, the South African Editor’s Forum (Sanef).

Attempts to get clarity about the session by Professort Asmal proved fruitless as my smses went unanswered until Thabo Leshilo, the Public Editor at Avusa, responded moments before the end of the session – though I got two different responses to the actual venue for the event.

Suffice to say, I missed a grand event but don’t regret being part of the second session which started at 2pm – and, again, I had to struggle to find the venue because it was a different one to the first where Asmal and Latakgomo spoke.

The first panel discussion was led by Richard Calland, Associate Professor in the Public Law Department at the University of Cape Town, with panellists including Dr Essop Pahad, former Minister in the Presidency and currently the editor-in-chief of The Thinker; Sanef chairperson and former editor of The Sunday Times Mondli Makhanya; and Professor Pippa Green, author, journalist and former head of radio at the SABC. Though I got the tail-end of the discussion, it was nevertheless a good indication that the media and government need to engage more often on issues affecting the government and how the media portrays government.

The second panel discussion was chaired by Professor Franz Kruger, with panellists including Lumko Mtimde, CEO of the Media Diversity Development Agency (MDDA); Eusebius McKaiser, analyst and columnist; and Lauren Hotton from the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) and the Rigth2Know Campaign.

Olle Wästberg, the former Swedish MP and Deputy Minister of Finance who is also former editor-in-chief of one of Sweden's biggest dailies, was the keynote speaker and responded to issues regarding media freedom and media reform, while making reference to the Swedish approach to the public’s right to information.

The message that emerged was that despite the complex relationship between the media and government, both needed each other. Therefore, the media and government should co-exist and constantly engage in issues of national interest. Another important lesson is that Media Freedom is sacrosanct; however, the media should also be responsible in executing their duties.

I also raised pertinent issues of recourse and the importance of naming and shaming scoundrels in the media who have tainted the media industry by plagiarising stories and manufacturing news. Some are well known; a point in case is a journalist who once faked a hijacking and blamed the police. Another journalist had plagiarised a story from one publication word-by-word and was rewarded with a cushy job at the same publication he had plagiarised the story.

My argument, therefore, is that journalists should be ‘glistening clean’ because they serve as the mirror for society. I still believe that charlatans such as Ashley Smith – who confessed to have been paid to manipulate the news while working for the Cape Argus – should be flushed out in order not to tarnish the image of the media.

Discussions such as the proposed MAT would not find space in journalism if only news media houses could get rid of these bad apples in their midst. The media and government should constantly engage in constructive discussions for the betterment of our country.

As for the rows of empty chairs, I still ask whether some editors and journalists take media freedom seriously or whether it is just about increasing newspaper sales, circulation and salaries as, yet again, none of the editors were present, with only a few reporters covering the event; and only a handful of journalism students and retired journalists such as myself, Oupa Ngwenya, political and media commentator Mogomotsi Mogodiri, and Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe, were in attendance.

Veteran journalist Raymond Louw has aged so much so that his phone rang incessantly during the seminar and he answered it without feeling that his actions were disruptive. What a pity?

Themba Sepotokele 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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