Is Media Freedom A Threat To Democracy?

By Sabelo Mkhonza

In South Africa there is a call from government to regulate the media industry by introducing new legislations.

Media freedom is one of the main principles of democracy and above that media freedom is enshrined in the constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

The SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng once suggested that journalists must be licensed and have their licenses revoked if found guilt of contravening media ethics. The practice is common in other professions like in education where they have South African council of educators (SACE) whereby teachers who are found guilty of serious misconduct their licenses can be suspended or revoked depending on the nature of misconduct.

Licensing journalists will be tantamount to government censorship. A country that infringes on media freedom, tries very hard to hide injustices and corruption which is always reported by the media. We have witnessed illegal arrest and killing of Aljazera journalist in Egypt and in the Middle East.

There is a general feeling that the media is out to criticize the government.

The South African government has responded by the proposal to withdraw all job advertisement on the mainstream media which will have serious financial implications for many media houses. This is a punishment to the media for criticizing the government. This will not stop the media from criticizing the government, the question will be what is next that the government will do to deal with media criticism? Our government must be open to criticism so that it will grow from strength to strength.

Media have uncovered many scandals and corruption in government. As a result if they were licensed they would not have been able to do so for the fear of their licenses and persecution. Those in authority will abuse this process in order to shield their wrongdoings.

The South African government tried to infringe on media freedom by introducing the famously known secrecy bill where journalists were to be prosecuted for publishing information that compromise the state security.

Furthermore, journalists will be compelled to reveal their sources and that will scare whistleblowers to report corruption and other illegal practices to the media for fear of victimization.

Currently there is internal code of conduct for each media house which journalist must conform to. There is also the press ombudsman who have ruled against the media on several occasions. Recently it had ruled in favour of Mr Tokyo Sexwale in a complain he lodged against the Star newspaper. The ombudsman ordered the paper to apologies and re-write the story with factual information.

The BCCSA is also a watch dog in broadcasting industry to regulate the media conduct, has also ruled in favour and against the media. In 2011 the BCCSA ruled against the SABC for contravening the broadcasting code by airing a news bulletin which was suggesting that a senior journalist at Mail and Guardian was involved in corruption.

Most politicians and socialites they claim that the media infringe on their dignity by defaming them.

Our constitution clearly explains what is defamation of character and who is protected and who is exempt. Unfortunately in most cases public interest overrides defamation of character and privacy.

The responsibility of the media is to inform, educate and entertain.

The incompetence of government communication officers who fail to supply information and respond to media queries on time also is a concern and that forces the media to publish a story without the other party being given an opportunity to respond.

There is no need for animosity between the media and communication scholars as they complement each other And they are from the same school of thought. The exodus of senior journalists to become communication officers has yet to solve the problem.

The public has a right to know. Time has lapsed for denying media access through embargoes  and sub judiced statements. Hopeful in future the media will not depend on courts to have access as it happened in Nkandla and in Oscar Pristorius case.