A conference at Wits on media rights and regulations in Africa was a place of passionate debate that recognised depth of the problems we're facing. There was also a clear understanding that the fight for truth, and freedom of expressing it, will be fought across the continent for many years to come. Report by THERESA MALLINSON.
“Regulations and rights: A Conference on the Roles and Responsibilities of African Media” took place at Wits University in Johannesburg on 9 and 10 March. The central message that emerged was that media throughout Africa are facing similar problems - most notably increasing repression by intolerant regimes. But, on a more optimistic note, the conference also heard there are plenty of people willing to fight this. It's going to be a protracted battle, though.
Given the increasing encroachment on media freedoms across the continent, the two-day conference couldn't have come at a more apposite time. More than 70 delegates from 20 African countries, gathered to discuss issues relating to access to information, self-regulation and accountability mechanisms, among others. As well as journalists, participants included media activists and academics, NGO representatives and legal practitioners.
Former South African Constitutional Court Judge Kate O'Regan delivered the keynote speech and noted: “At the heart of the entrenchment of the right to freedom of expression in international law lies the recognition that the right imposes duties and responsibilities on those who exercise the right. And the focus of this conference is how those responsibilities should best be regulated.”
Given the current debate about self-regulation in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, the issue of just how to regulate these responsibilities was one of the hottest topics. In his presentation Wits journalism lecturer and member of the Press Council, Franz Krüger, made the important point that, “The misconception is that self-regulation is an extreme, whereas the extreme would be having no methods of regulation.” There was nothing “scary”, he said, about regulating freedom of expression - the challenge was to work out how to best to do so.
Of course, one of the conditions for having a successful self-regulation process is a media sector that is capable of rising to the challenge. Tanzanian media consultant Audrey Ngazima, who formerly served on the Media Council of Tanzania, raised this concern, saying the lack of a professional, well-developed media sector in many African countries resulted in the failure of self-regulation. “If the media were to lose public trust, it would lose its legitimacy. Media must remain credible, socially responsible and ethical in whatever they do,” he said. “Sometimes the lack of professional maturity does create a fertile ground for government to clamp down on the media.”
In tandem with a mature media sector, goes a mature democracy. Tawana Kupe, the dean of humanities at Wits University, pointed out that, given weak opposition parties, the media effectively functions as the opposition in many African countries. But, of course, in its role as a watchdog, the media should be holding all parties equally accountable, not merely the ruling party. “We... need to re-orientate the role of the opposition and drive the media away from its current role of surrogate political opposition,” Kupe said. To strengthen democracy, a real political opposition needs to be created, and it was not the place of the media to fulfil this function. Only with strong opposition can the repressive tendencies of many African states be countered.
Even in countries such as Ghana, which has a high degree of media freedom, the state is now trying to re-assert control. George Sarpong, executive secretary of Ghana's National Media Commission, explained this body had jurisdiction over state-owned media, for example, the power to appoint members to the public broadcasters' board. Its mandate was also to ensure that equal airtime was given to the ruling and opposition parties. But at a recent constitutional reviews proposal forum, a chilling view was put forward: “Please do something about media freedom; it is too much – find a way to cut it.”
Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, highlighted the connection between trying to control the media and the worrying implications for society in general. “Efforts to curb access to information don't happen in isolation. It's part of the trajectory from an open society to control,” he said.
As a means of negating such control, there was a pressing need for state-owned media not to become a mouthpiece of the ruling party, and instead to develop into a true public service. Wits Journalism head Anton Harber raised this point in no uncertain terms in a discussion with ANC Gauteng head of communications Nkenke Kekana, telling him to “forget about public media”. “If you care about what is best for journalism, focus on the SABC,” Harber said, adding that good things would flow from that.
Kekana, for his part, had earlier said the proposed media appeals tribunal was “a red herring”, and that the ANC “will give self-regulation a chance and look at co-regulation before a tribunal”, but delegates were unwilling to take his words at face value, given the various conflicting positions we have heard on this in the past. City Press editor Ferial Haffajee was militant about protecting media freedom. “We can't stop (the) march to censorship in South Africa. We must prepare for court challenges and mobilise popular campaigns,” she said.
As much as the conference was about listening to and engaging with journalists from around the continent, the South African media was reminded that it has a special responsibility. Henry Maina, director of Article 19 in Kenya, noted that the South African government was seen as an example in Africa. “Reversing access to information laws undermines the fight for access to information on the continent,” he said.
Fred M'memba, editor of the Zambian Post, that country's only independent newspaper, pointed to this fight being an ongoing struggle. “The corrupt politically; they'll never want a free press. They'll always seek to edit it.” he said. “It is true, there is power in the media, and wherever there is power, that power will always be contested. Because there's power in the media those who are in politics are contesting that power. Which means no matter how stable a democracy is, there will always be the need to protect and defend... press freedom.”
Overall, the issues discussed at the conference dovetailed neatly with the mission of Free African Media. The many voices detailing their own individual experiences – and those of their countries – showed there are plenty of people across the continent willing to fight for media freedom. Although any conference is in some measure a “talk shop”, valuable connections were made, forging relationships that will hopefully extend far beyond two days in Johannesburg in March. Perhaps one thing lacking was the Francophone perspective. While there were some delegates from French-speaking countries, all of the speakers were from Anglophone Africa. If we are to truly engage in a pan-continental discussion, we need to find ways of bringing our French-speaking colleagues into the conversation. Because the struggle for a free media needs as many troops as it can get. FAM
- Regulations, rights media conference kicks off at Wits, at BizCommunity.
Photo: UK in South Africa's photostream.
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