Ministers and Deputy Ministers
The Chairperson and leadership of Sanef
The first meeting between the government and Sanef in June 2001, referred to as the Sun City Indaba, was described by both parties as historic and ground breaking. The meeting was necessitated by the desire by both government and the editors to enhance working relations which were thitherto characterised by high levels of mistrust and animosity. Both parties agreed that such high levels of mistrust and animosity was doing more harm than good to our young democracy.
Both parties agreed that the Constitution was a central reference point to the kind of relationship that needed to be cultivated and sustained.
The Constitution says: “everyone has a right to freedom of expression which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”
The meeting agreed with former President Thabo Mbeki’s definition of media freedom which he said “amounts to no more and no less than the elementary right of all people to have unfettered access to the means of truly expressing their opinions and conversely having access to media that fully reflect their life experience and their aspirations”. This was important to establish the basis for co-orperation between government and the media.
The meeting was characterised by frank, robust, candid and open engagement. Both government and the media raised issues that they felt very strongly about but in the end agreed to cultivate good working relations in the mutual interest of the media and the government, and in the interest of the country.
I thought it was necessary to reflect a bit on that historic meeting so that we don’t lose the important start that was made in 2001. This meeting must therefore be seen as a continuation of the process that was started then and also as part of management and maintenance of working relations between government and the media.
The relationship between government and the media is not one that either of the parties can opt to be in or to stay out of. It is an interdependent relationship in which each of the parties needs each other to achieve their respective and common objectives.
Government on the one hand has an obligation to communicate with the people in a two-way process, account to the people on its work and create the possibility for the people to get involved in its programmes and in changing their own lives.
The media on the other hand has, among others, the role of facilitating the provision of accurate and reliable information to the people, thus enabling the people to fully participate in building an open and democratic society and in shaping their own destiny.
As we agreed in Sun City, both government and the media have a responsibility to promote a free, open and democratic society.
As we meet today and tomorrow as members of the National Executive and representatives of the Fourth Estate we must answer these critical questions: Are we doing enough jointly and severally to promote a free and democratic society? Do the people have unfettered access to the means to express their opinions? Do our media reflect the life experience and aspirations of the people?
These are some of the questions that we should reflect upon as we endeavor to strengthen our fledgling democracy.
I wish to take this opportunity to once again state that the South African government remains fully committed to the Constitution and that it has no intention of doing anything whatsoever that may undermine freedom of expression and freedom of the media to function effectively.
The Constitution, as the supreme law of the Republic, provides necessary guarantees to prevent abuse of power. This means our Parliament may not pass legislation that is found to be in conflict with the Constitution. There is enough evidence to support this, including instances when the President referred legislation back to the National Assembly due to concerns about constitutionality of such legislation. There are also a number of Constitutional Court judgements which effectively instructed Parliament to change legislation to comply with the Constitution.
It is therefore surprising that recently draft legislation has been used as a rallying point to project the government as a threat to freedom of expression including freedom of the media.
No section of our society is infallible. The Constitution and the judicial processes provide sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse of power by any section of society.
Essentially laws are passed in order to protect the public from abuse by those in authority.
The debate about the conduct of the media, especially the print media, and related regulatory and redress mechanisms arose out of concerns and observations made by the public relating to quality, accuracy and ethics in our print media.
We are aware that the print media are reviewing self regulatory institutions including the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council. We hope that the end product of this review will address some of the issues raised by the public relating to the print media regulatory system.
There are other issues relating to the media which continue to be subject of public debate including transformation and diversity. The public will continue to debate these matters as long as they are not addressed adequately. But such debate should not be misconstrued to be a threat to the freedom of the press and other media.
Open debate is an essential characteristic of an open and democratic society we are nurturing and should be encouraged as long as it is conducted within the framework of the Constitution.
Coming back to the critical question of whether we are doing enough as government and the media to fulfill our responsibilities of promoting an open and democratic society I think we must again refer to the Sun City Indaba. The Way Forward document of the meeting said:
“Media and Government accepted each other’s bona fides whilst at the same recognizing each other’s dynamics. Government reiterates its commitment firstly to ensuring the independence of the media, whilst taking steps to encourage diversity. Secondly, it reiterates its commitment to engage in public work transparently and to facilitate access to information for journalists.
“The media recommitted itself to accurate and fair reporting; and dissemination of information that would advance the objectives of our constitution”.
Detailed steps were agreed upon with the aim of improving and increasing public information, improving government communications and strengthening capacity of the media.
Tomorrow both government and Sanef will make presentations on specific matters related to their respective roles and working relations. Some of the issues raised at Sun City will be raised again including quality of reporting on government programmes and public policy, availability of government to answer questions from the media, frequency of government media briefings, professionalism among government communicators and juniorisation of news rooms.
The fact that many of these issues remain on the agenda suggests that there is still work to be done by both government and the media to ensure that we fulfill our respective responsibilities to the public.
Tomorrow’s session must be dedicated to finding practical ways to resolve all the challenges that face both government and the media and ways in which we can strengthen good working relations in the mutual interest of government and the media and in the interest of our country.