The Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, addressed the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) council dinner in Cape Town on Saturday night.
Adv Madonsela highlighted the importance of a free media in her speech, saying that “Truth be told, the media is one of the most influential and important sectors of our society”.
“With its freedom enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic, the media is one of the critical pillars of constitutional democracy.
“Former Chief Justice, Pius Langa, couldn’t have highlighted this point better when he addressed the 2009 commemoration of one of the darkest days in our country aptly called the ‘Black Wednesday’. As we all remember, this is the day on which in 1977 several South African newspapers were banned and their editors thrown in jail by the erstwhile apartheid government.
“Justice Langa summed it up as follows:
“‘Without the media, equality and human dignity would diminish in this democratic state. Independence of both the media and judiciary is very important for our democracy to flourish.’”
Advocate Madonsela went on to draw parallels between the work of the public protector, and that of the media.
“We can never over emphasise the role of the media in making democracy real. As we no longer live in small villages where we all observe what happens in our name as a people and with our resources, the media in all its dimensions be it print, broadcast or electronic, has become our eyes and ears. It also extends our mouth when we seek to be heard.
“It is globally accepted that one of the factors that underpin good governance, incorporating an accountable and responsive state, is the existence of an independent, impartial and credible media. This is mainly due to the fact that state accountability and good governance depend on transparency and openness.”
But, she said, the media wields enormous power and with power, comes responsibility.
“One of the responsibilities that my office shares with the media is to ensure that our integrity and credibility remain beyond reproach. It’s not an easy task because as humans there is always a chance that we will make mistakes. But the pursuit of integrity and credibility in the conduct of our work is not optional if we are to play an effective role in strengthening and supporting constitutional democracy.”
Adv Madonsela said that the role of her office is often misunderstood, and often by representatives of the State itself.
“There are numerous reasons why organs of state get it wrong on the question of the mandate of my office. One of the explanations is that Ombudsman studies are not part of the mandatory curriculum for law students. The few that take Administrative law as an elective get exposed to brief reference to the Ombudsman as one of three alternative avenues for challenging administrative actions of the state, the other two being courts and tribunals.
“The media can and already does play a critical role in educating both the state and potential complaints. One of my dreams though is the arrival of the day when the media will give equal attention to the bread and butter matters that occupy 90% of our time as it gives to matters involving executive ethics, tender irregularities, corruption and matters that generally involve high personal stakes in the world of politics.”
She added hat she was not in any way “regretting or diminishing the importance of the matters you cover” and that “many of the cases that my office has investigated involving violations of the executive Members Ethics Act and tender irregularities originated from media stories”.
But, she said, “The other aspect on which we will really appreciate the assistance of the media is that of the enforcement of our remedial action”.
Adv Madonsela said that misunderstandings do occur “once in a while” but that these are easily resolved. “We have previously sat with the Mail and Guardian, the City Press and recently The New Age to iron out issues and have never looked back.”
The office of the public protector will continue to engage with the media and is considering “quarterly courtesy visits to newsrooms to learn how you do your jobs, build contacts and further strengthen relations”.
“In conclusion, l would like to emphasise the point that for us to do our bit towards the ideal of a strong constitutional democracy, a partnership with a free media is of paramount importance.
Let us work together to ensure an accountable and responsive state that conducts its affairs with the highest level of integrity while upholding the rule of law and human rights.”