Print media can help carve out a new vision

25 August 2016

By Minister Faith Muthambi

At some stage almost everybody would have read or seen something in the mainstream media which was at odds with their own life experience.  This is hardly surprising given the diverse nature of our country, the array of cultures and the vastly differing circumstances of most South Africans.

In a country like ours such contradictions are often commonplace given our past of forced exclusion.  Thankfully much has been done to address shortcomings since 1994, and it’s fair to say that the media landscape is changing, albeit too slowly in some cases.

It is arguable that the pace of change has been most anaemic in the print media landscape. Ownership is still largely restricted to a few large conglomerates and this in turn contributes to there being very little plurality of voice.

There are some who might argue that plurality should not be the overriding factor, and that dedication to journalistic principles must take precedence at all times.  Such an argument is not without merit but given the vast cultural richness of our nation there is room for both plurality and excellence.

Since 1994 the media have operated in a society that protects and values freedom of speech and expression.  The media are also free to fulfil a vital oversight role and continue to shine a light on challenges and failings in society.

The role of the media as the fourth estate will never be in question.  Nonetheless the current situation where only a few voices dominate is not desirable nor sustainable.  Media and especially print media are operating in an ever tightening environment, readership is down and advertising revenue is under pressure. 

In such an environment plurality could be the answer in that it encompasses and gives life to a diversity of views. It will also ensure that the lived experience of South Africans is better reflected, and will ultimately breathe new life into a struggling industry.

Plurality matters because it contributes to a well-functioning democratic society that is characterised by informed citizens.  It prevents any one media owner or owners having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda. Most importantly it ensures that there is a diversity of viewpoints which encompasses a wide spectrum of society.

The upcoming Print Media Colloquium is a chance for us to jointly take the conversation about the media landscape forward.   Various media role-players have been invited to this discussion that is being hosted by the Department of Communications on 25 and 26 August.

Government is not blind to the fact that the media sector is highly contested and that differing views abound.  However, there is a clear need for the media to become a mirror to all and not just a select few. Ultimately these discussions are about broadening the reach and scope of the media by making it more inclusive.  

We know that there are some who may view this process as an attempt to muzzle or regulate the media. Such an assertion is their right; we rather view this process as an opportunity to engage around a common vision for South Africa.

The transformation imperative has been an integral part of our democratic journey since 1994. It is also true that massive change has taken place in the past 22 years.  Newsrooms now better reflect the realities of our nation and media report more widely on the lived South African experience. 

There is however, room for even greater progress in this regard, especially when it comes to ownership. The existing ownership patters still largely mirror those we inherited in 1994, and we must continue our debate about how this shapes public discourse. 

These discussions will not be easy, however they must happen and are vital to moving our nation forward.

Government would like to reaffirm that freedom of expression and freedom of the press and other media is enshrined in our Constitution.  The media must therefore continue to report without fear or favour, expose wrongs and shine a light on issues that are vital to the public and to our democracy.

South Africa has come a long way since 1994 but our journey still continues.  As our democracy continues to evolve we need every sector of society to play a role in moving South Africa forward.

The media are well placed to be more proactive in ensuring access to information, and can also do more to ensure citizens make responsible and informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. There is also room for more reporting which reveals a fuller and more nuanced context of our challenges. 

South Africa is still a young democracy but our journey reflects a growing maturity. One that gives us hope that indeed we are alive with possibilities for all who live in this wonderful country.