Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Media Woken from Media Freedom Slumber

By Themba Sepotokele

When retired judge of the Constitutional Court Pius Langa stood in the not-so packed Wits Great Hall to commemorate Media Freedom Day on Monday, 19 October 2009, most newspaper editors were nowhere to be seen. Worse, editors did not assign reporters to cover the event.

Langa, who delivered the keynote address, had delivered a mouth-watering speech which has not even been posted on the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) website. And SANEF are the chief co-organisers of the event together with the Freedom of Expression Institute FXI), the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and Print Media South Africa (IAJ)!

Print media, which ‘Black Wednesday’ is dedicated to – referring to the historic event on 19 October 1977 when several print media organisations were banned - neglected to cover the event and focused on frivolous and scandalous stories. Only e.tv and SABC covered the event. The South African Press Association (SAPA) contributed meagre paragraphs about an important event the Sowetan newspapers used to pioneer during the era of the late legendary editor-in-chief Dr Aggrey Klaaste.

I remember, as a cub journalist, Sowetan newspaper would convene a three-day event at Vista, Soweto Campus, now called the University of Johannesburg with speakers such as Dr Kgomolemo Mokae and Dr Nthato Motlana, to mention but two – to discuss pertinent issues affecting the Fourth Estate and how to improve in journalistic reporting. As the mirror of the society it is important to celebrate and commemorate such important days.

Every ‘wanna-be’ journalist by then felt the impact of the commemoration of Black Wednesday. As Media Freedom and the Freedom of the Press is so sacrosanct, it important to ponder and celebrate the gains and challenges facing journalists. Alas! As my erstwhile colleagues are good at neglecting their own turf as some did with the noble organisation, the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ) – they did the same with Media Freedom Day. They relegated it to the gallows until they were woken from a slumber by those documenting the media’s shortcomings.

When former ANC Women’s League president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela uttered these words, “Use the freedom of the press we gave you properly, because we can take it from you,” there was deafening silence from the media. It was only when Julius Malema showed the media the middle finger and chased British journalist British Broadcasting Corporation Jonah Fisher during a media briefing in April that the media got its act together.

It was when Professor Dario Milo, a media law expert, warned the media about the pending Protection of Information Bill that the media finally woke up from its slumber. And when the ANC circulated its document on the media before its NGC, the media cried foul on the mooted Media Appeals Tribunal. And when Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested outside the Avusa offices in August, the media made the loudest noise ever and carried posters and headlines such as: “Hands off the media”; “ANC blasts media”; “Media fights back”, “ANC and Media talk”; “Editors unite for media talk”; “Journo Arrested”; Media Freedom Talks” and so forth. The media got an opportunity to defend media freedom they had abandoned and neglected like a nagging step-child.
Thanks to the ruling party, media remembered to take itself seriously, and remembered that media freedom is sacrosanct; a cornerstone of democracy.

On Tuesday, 19 October 2010, I foresee the Wits Great Hall packed to the rafters like FNB stadium when Kaizer Chiefs lock horns with its arch-rival Orlando Pirates. High on the agenda is MAT and PIB with the Ashley-Smithgate Brown Envelope Journalism Scandal relegated to obscurity, albeit important.

Themba Sepotokele is a former journalist and now a Gauteng-based government communicator and a media trainer attached to the Sol Plaatje Institute of Media Leadership at Rhodes University in Grahanstown. These are his personal views.


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