The Importance of Strengthening Systems and Institutions

South African institutions are limping. Nobody will dispute that the country faces huge challenges. Covid-19 has laid bare the fault lines in our society. The provision of jobs and the creation of a fair social system will not be possible if institutions are not functioning fully. The recent fire at parliament raises many questions about the protection of systems and whether or not they were functioning as they should.  This focus on the media in the Big Issue cannot be timelier. The media is an institution that has to be strengthened at all times so that it can provide the quality information citizens need to make informed decisions.  The media also must be equipped with journalists that can ask the necessary questions and examine carefully what they are told before repeating fake facts.  Journalists have a number of professional groups that focus on improving the quality of the institution. All across the world however there has been a consistent attack on media freedom. 

According to Reporter Without Borders’ (RSF) annual round-up published in December 2021, a record number of journalists – 488, including 60 women – are currently detained worldwide, while another 65 are being held hostage. Some good news is that the number of journalists killed in 2021 – 46 – is at its lowest in 20 years.

South Africa does not fall on the list of countries where journalists are killed. This was of a time gone by for now.  But the challenge remains essentially to safeguard and build journalism as an institution, like it is to build teaching as a profession and other key pillars that make South Africa function.

Four journalists recently released a press freedom statement to mark South Africa’s National Media Freedom Day in October 2021. They work as part of a collective with The Journalist, a multi-media website that aims to provide historical perspectives on the profession.

The Journalist(www.thejournalist.org.za) is six years old and in the past year has not been able to publish its regular monthly edition due to financial limitations. It has however brought out two special editions, one marking World Press Freedom Day and the other South African Media Freedom Day. Both make for an interesting read. This is part of an effort to of an effort to contribute to strengthening the profession and media as an institution.

In the end, if institutions are pushed back and constantly weakened, this will express itself in the quality of life of all citizens. Efforts are underway to reverse some of the weaknesses of state institutions but in the end each citizen wherever he or she may find him or herself can up the game through improving the institutions they work in.

The 2021 Media Freedom Statement that follows here is part of an effort of these journalists to reflect on how far the media has progressed and perhaps how it can further expand its mandate in the future.

Media Freedom Statement, South African Media Freedom Day October 19 2021

 Zubeida Jaffer, Shepi Mati, Frank Meintjies and Phindile Xaba

South Africa has come a long way from the dark day of October 19, 1977 when the Apartheid regime squeezed the noose tightly around press freedom. Known as Black Wednesday, the day has appropriately become the official South African Media Freedom Day. On that day in 1977, the whites-only racist government banned 19 Black Consciousness Movement organisations and detained scores of activists. It further closed The World and Weekend World newspapers and detained the editor Percy Qoboza for five months at the Modderbee Prison under section 10 of the Internal Security Act of 1950.

Jailing journalists without trial, banning them and forcing some into exile became the order of the day. Diverse voices were suppressed and the public sphere was populated with propaganda. The media operated in a minefield of intricate laws designed to make it almost impossible to publish any information without authorisation from the government, especially on political and national security issues.

Adoption of Inclusive Constitution

Finally, in 1996, with the adoption of the inclusive South African Constitution, Clause 16 of the Bill of Rights elegantly broke this noose and created space for the re-centering of the age-old traditions of the lekgotla or indaba – also known as the public sphere – where everyone was encouraged to speak their minds. It further brought journalists back to the time-honoured practice of the imbongi, the person selected to praise and criticise without fear or favour to ensure the health of a community. Linked to the notion of the imbongi, and further helping to deepen our understanding of press freedom, are the roles of storyteller, griot, sanusi, truth-sayer, seer, sangoma, healer, village fool. These were people who, as part of their roles or calling, often held a mirror to the community for introspection and who spoke the truth using code, song, mime, physical expression, satire, mocking as well as symbolism and allegory.

Media Freedom

Internationally, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right to freedom of expression. It states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In South Africa, the relevant clause reads:

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes

  1. Freedom of the press and other media;
  2. Freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
  3. Freedom of artistic creativity; and
  4. Academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

(2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to

  1. Propaganda for war;
  2. Incitement of imminent violence, or
  3. Advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

The limitations placed on free expression in this clause blends well with the spirit of Ubuntu that does not tolerate hate speech. The grounding principle of the philosophy that a person is a person through other people stands at the core of an approach that has evolved through the centuries in this part of the world.

South Africa’s Media Freedom Day

On South African Media Freedom Day, these rights and practices are fully institutionalised and stand as a core pillar of a country that is crafting its future in the present.

They have been further concretised in our law.  In Khumalo and Others v Holomisa, the Constitutional Court explained that:

“The print, broadcast and electronic media have a particular role in the protection of freedom of expression in our society. Every citizen has the right to freedom of the press and the media and the right to receive information and ideas. The media are key agents in ensuring that these aspects of the right to freedom of information are respected. The ability of each citizen to be a responsible and effective member of our society depends upon the manner in which the media carry out their constitutional mandate.”

These consolidations of free expression and media freedom have to be vigorously defended and protected. The easy spread of disinformation represents the greatest challenge currently and needs constant vigilance. Fortunately, there is considerable magnification of this challenge and through the to and fro, greater clarity of possible solutions will come with time.

Commitment to Free Expression

The Journalist chooses on this day to celebrate the commitment to free expression but believes that for South Africa to flourish, there must be recognition that suppression of free expression has not been the only noose placed around our necks.

Colonialism and apartheid did not only suppress free expression and silence critics but also ignored and systematically marginalised the voices of the great majority. It was as if the majority simply did not exist and their stories did not matter at all.

Buried deep within the South African psyche is a wealth of expression, including understandings and perceptions of the world and life that have been marginalised under colonialism and apartheid, that has to come to the fore and can no longer be ignored. The Journalist on these pages provides a glimpse of the richness of expression that has so long been written out of national public life. Has the time not come for us to think in new and more dynamic ways of what it means to expand the public sphere; to revisit what it means – in our context of rebuilding and restoration – to ensure it is truly place of multiple voices? Has the time not come for us to vastly extend the list of our expressive forebears and deeply enrich our current discourse with a symphony of inputs that breaks free from the constraints of recent colonial history that so colours our perspectives?

Zubeida Jaffer commenting live for SABC News Channel 404 in front of St. George’s Cathedral for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s State Funeral on Saturday 01 January 2022Photograph by Ruschka Jaffer

7 January 2022 

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