18 October 2010
The government and senior editors of South Africa’s major newspapers have agreed to take steps to improve relations between the authorities and the press in the country, with both parties agreeing on the need for a “vibrant, diverse and critical” media sector to safeguard South Africa’s democracy.
A government delegation led by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) held a robust two-day meeting in Magaliesburg, North West on the weekend to discuss issues affecting the two parties – including the proposal for a media appeals tribunal.
The last time the government met with Sanef was in 2001, when relations between the two hit an all-time low.
Controvery over media tribunal proposal
Tensions re-emerged in recent months following proposals by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to establish a media tribunal in addition to the media’s self-regulation system. Many in the media have expressed concerns over the proposal, citing threats to freedom of the press.
Government spokesperson Themba Maseko, speaking after the weekend’s meeting, said the parties had agreed on the need for a “vibrant, diverse and critical” media sector to safeguard South Africa’s constitutional democracy.
“Sanef expressed concerns about the developments it views as threatening media freedom in the country … Government raised its concerns that it was at times vilified and treated unfairly by the media,” Maseko said.
The government also raised issues around the diversity of media ownership, the quality and integrity of reporting, as well as the need for dissemination of information in a way that would help the country move forward.
The ministers argued that the media’s self-regulatory mechanism failed to address issues such as reckless and inaccurate reporting. Sanef is currently reviewing the press ombudsman system in an attempt to make it more effective.
Communication versus ‘gatekeeping’
Motlanthe said the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) would be tasked with organising regular training sessions for communicators to enable them to deal with journalists better.
This was after Sanef chairperson Mondli Makhanya expressed concerns that government communicators often acted like “gatekeepers” instead of releasing information to the public.
“To us this is really serious, because we cannot allow a situation where people become gatekeepers whereas they are supposed to disseminate information,” Makhanya said.
Speaking before the meeting, Makhanya said that the media would continue to fulfill its role as “watchdogs” while engaging in robust debate about what was best for South Africa. “We must accept that there will be differences, we will have tensions now and then, but that does not [have to] lead to hostility,” he said.
Constitution the reference point
It was agreed that similar meetings should to be held on an annual basis to deal with such challenges, which should be addressed with the understanding that South Africa’s fledgling democracy was in its formative stages.
“The meeting agreed that the Constitution remains the central reference point and guiding principle of both the mandate of government and the role of the media, and that the legitimacy of both institutions remains firmly entrenched,” Maseko said.
The government and the media shared interdependency within the Constitutional framework, and mutually acceptable norms would serve to strengthen the delivery of information to the public.
Motlanthe said the government remained “fully committed” to the Constitution, and that it had no intention of doing anything that might undermine freedom of expression or the freedom of the media to function effectively.
Motlanthe said discussions over the proposed media tribunal would continue until a “consensus” was reached by all role players.
“We have undertaken to implement all that has been agreed on, and we will continue to engage on some issues with the hope that we may be able to find each other,” he said.