Freedom of the press does not mean the public has no right to question the information it feeds us, writes Nhlanhla Mtaka
IT HAS become a trend, especially in our country, for the media to perceive their role as watchdogs and vanguards of transparency. The question of whose agenda such individuals serve as journalists is, from time to time, raised by politicians. Reading an article last week detailing that within the colonial walls of the Durban City Hall some councillors were considering “limiting access” of the media to the executive committee meetings reminded me that, as a nation, we still have a challenge when it comes to media freedom. But I must, from the outset, register my disappointment with some of the media associations and journalists who see such moves as “antimedia”, or label such critics as people who are opposing freedom of association.
They should understand that while freedoms of association and of choice are fundamental human rights, it is wrong to suggest that the public is not entitled to interrogate whether such individual journalists lived up to their duty to inform in an objective manner, and to pursue truth in order to contribute to the deepening of democratic cultures and practices of transparency and accountability of elected representatives.
It goes without saying that freedom of the press should not be treated as a privilege but as a right. This freedom, which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other important instruments, is one of the flagship areas in determining the levels of democracy in a given society. The right goes hand in hand with the freedoms of conscience and of receiving information. This means that as a public, we have equal right in determining what kind of information we need as a society. Therefore, the influence of the media on our lives is immense.
As citizens we rely on the media for diverse information, which on all accounts should remain objective with the intention of promoting democratic cultures of accountability and transparency of those in power. The persistence of allegations of media bias in our province should not be taken lightly considering’ that they came at a time when we thought that our politicians, and the public in general, had acknowledged the critical role of the media in our society.
But are these allegations really well founded or a just political gimmick? On the other hand, can we really say without doubt that our journalists are not guilty of being biased? In the past these allegations were not taken as seriously as they used to be, based on fallacious arguments that a media house with a white editor would automatically support the so-called white agenda and a media house with a black editor would automatically support a black agenda. I am sure that it will be as difficult to prove bias in a journalist as it is difficult trying to prove that someone is a racist. Like in cases of racism, someone accused of being biased will never accept being guilty – in fact, you will hear a lot of stories explaining the motives behind one’s actions.
As citizens, we must not fall into the trap of argument that generally dismisses these allegations as a threat to media freedom. For no such generalization can be made. However, in discussing the issue it is critical to consider, in the broader arena, two realities that have raised more questions about the independence of the media in this province. There are, firstly; historical and cultural realities. Journalists as human beings are not immune to the influence of history; culture and political events. Like many of us, journalists were affected directly and indirectly by our past, especially that of political violence.
They were forced to choose between party A and party B. Based on that reality it is possible that in their reporting about party A, one might notice bias towards party B. The second reality is that, post-apartheid, we have witnessed journalists’ “great trek” from media rooms to government boardrooms. These new trekkers – unlike the ones of yesteryear who decided to move without knowing the other world – know where they are going to. Most ends up being spokespeople, communication and liaison managers for MPs and ministers, and municipal public relations officers.
This great trek surely raises a lot of questions; we all know that joining an MEC as a spokesman is not like being hired to drive a train or taxi where your loyalty is not always an issue. It is difficult to sell an idea to the public as a spokesperson about something you have little or no belief in. The unwritten rule of spin doctoring suggests a level of passion for the matter at hand must exist to be able to sell it convincingly to the consumer – in this case, the public.
Based on some of the issues above, it should therefore be acceptable for the public to question the levels to which such individual journalists might have pursued certain cases or practices by elected representatives where democratic cultures might have been undermined, thus creating an opportunity to erode principles of transparency.
The real question is how do we, as a young democracy; raise and address these issues without denting our democracy project?
• Nhlanhla Mtaka writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are not those of Idasa, with whom Mtaka is associated, or of any other structure.