By Minister Faith Muthambi
“The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” These are powerful words of Malcolm X and they ring true to those familiar with our history, especially under apartheid.
Our own history in this regard is complex, some media actively opposed apartheid often at great personal cost to brave men and women. Others were used as a tool to legitimise the apartheid system. They served the narrative of prominent anti-apartheid leaders who sought to portray oppressive and racist “separate development” as normal.
Racism was also rife in the newsroom and media were prevented from playing their role of being a public “watchdog” or to scrutinise the work of government. Who could forget the events on 19 October 1977 when the apartheid government banned and jailed journalists for speaking out against injustices and reporting on them.
In 1994 the democratically elected government sought to change the status quo. The government was determined that it would never allow a situation where media freedom was threatened and journalists prevented from doing their job. It adopted a Constitution and pieces of legislation that guaranteed media freedom, freedom of expression, access to information, media diversity, editorial independence and the right to communicate freely.
It is without doubt that South Africa has in the last 22 years of our democracy become a better country than it was pre-1994. The country is home to a vibrant media environment and the public has an indisputable right to a free media. Journalists carry out their work without fear or favour and are free from intimidation and harassment. Since 1994 the media have shone a light on issues that are vital to the public and to our democracy.
Undoubtedly much has changed since 1994 and this change has mostly been for the good. However, the slow pace of transformation, particularly with regard to print media ownership and control remains concerning. The changes we have seen in terms of demographics still fall short from reflecting our collective society. Media ownership and control is still in the hands of a select few and this is reflected across the value chain; in publishing, printing, distribution, circulation, research and advertising. In particular, alternative voices, more specifically of the poor and disadvantaged still remain largely unheard in media.
On 25 and 26 August these important matters will be discussed at a colloquium which has been organised by the Department of Communications. It is a platform to openly debate a discussion document that has been developed by the department and deliberate on how best to transform our media environment, increase the diversity of voice and message. It will also allow participants to assess progress made in transformation since the Print Media Indaba was held five years ago.
The discussion document presents an approach to transformation and diversity of the media environment in line with the founding principles of the South African democratic order. The colloquium is expected to be attended by industry associations, lobby groups, small commercial and community media representatives, and organs of state, including the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA).
We are hopeful that the discussion will help strengthen the document that might later become a policy. The final document will later be made available for written comments and proposals as part of public participation process.
The gathering is also an opportunity to hear from those who own the newspapers how much progress they have made in implementing the recommendations of their Task Team. The Task Team, which was launched in 2012, and had been given the responsibility to do research and make recommendations on how best to implement transformation in the print media industry.
The report had found that the industry “failed to transform itself sufficiently in a number of key areas”, including “the direct empowerment areas of ownership and management and control, as well as in the areas of skills development and employment equity with particular reference to women and the disabled”. It however highlighted that the industry had done well in the socio-economic development, preferential procurement and enterprise development.
We hope that the report will in part inform our discussions at the colloquium and assist us to come up with solutions to speed up the process. This colloquium is indeed an important milestone in the transformation journey of one of our country’s most important sectors. Government looks forward to engaging with all stakeholders towards greater diversity in the media environment.