OPINION: Once again, a complex debate over media freedom in South Africa has raised its head, writes Chris Moerdyk.
But the answer, I believe, is actually quite simple.
There are those critics, including a few newspaper editors recently, who complain that some media in South Africa act as though they are a sort of opposition party and others that only highlight the negative side of politicians in the ruling party.
I believe that just as politicians have done in the US, UK and most of Europe, South African legislators need to grow up and stop whining at the press. And to realise quite frankly, that just like media in the majority of democracies, South African newspapers, radio stations, TV networks and magazines, along with online publishers, are perfectly entitled to take political sides.
Many did just that during the apartheid era. Freedom of expression does not mean that the media are obliged to remain politically neutral.
There is, in effect, no difference between a group of citizens getting together to oppose a political party and a news medium doing the same thing. It is acceptable practice all over the world where true democracy exists.
But there is another aspect of media freedom that does require serious attention. And that is when reports are patently incorrect.
It happens a lot in South Africa these days, mostly as a result of an overall poor standard of journalism and an equally poor standard of editing.
It has always seemed unfair to me that a newspaper or any other news medium can get something wrong and then simply apologise after being found guilty by an industry ombudsman. Usually with a simple and terse statement of fact mostly hidden away somewhere and concluding with, “We regret the error.”
In many cases, errors in reportage lead to damage of reputations both personal and corporate as well as a lot of unnecessary trauma.
I believe that with media freedom comes responsibility and quite simply, when the media gets things wrong both the medium itself needs to provide some sort of recompense other than a token apology and most importantly of all, those responsible should be heavily censured rather than protected by their employers.
Reporters and journalists need to be put under a lot more pressure by their own regulators to check their facts and to present two sides of a story. They need to know that if they just rush into print with a one-sided report, that there is a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads and wallets.
Of course, there are those who argue that if editors and reporters have to work with harsh retribution over their heads many reports will simply not see the light of day.
Which is nonsense.
In my opinion, the consequence of harsher retribution is that many media won’t be tempted to produce the kind of sensation that does a great selling job for them one day even if they have to apologise for it the next day.
The media in South Africa needs to take responsibility for the privilege of freedom.
Frankly, “sorry” just doesn’t hack it.
I have in the past written about this issue and have concluded that unless South Africa’s news media can take responsibility and put an end to the current litany of stupid, sensationalist, error-ridden reports, government will have no option but to respond by adding all sorts of Ts&Cs to media freedom.
If the media industry continues to regulate itself then its ombuds need to be given enough teeth to apply far higher penalties than just a simple directive to apologise.
Do you agree with Chris? Do media organisations have the right to pick a political side? Or should they remain impartial? Let us know in the comments.
Follow Chris Moerdyk @chrismoerdyk
* Opinions expressed in posts published on The Media Online are not necessarily those of Wag the Dog Publishers or the editor but contribute to the diversity of voices in South Africa.
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