The theme of this issue is independence… and independence is the issue. An independent judiciary, independent law enforcement and an independent media, all balanced by a constitutional system that provides checks and balances – this is what makes for a healthy democracy and, naturally, a healthy economy.
An independent media has several roles to play. Firstly, as a watchdog, the press can inform the populace of abuses of power, if and when they take place. Secondly, as educator, it serves to inform people of their rights; how they can combat corruption and what to do if they witness abuses. An independent media is something to be protected by all free-thinking individuals.
This is the main reason that in South Africa, civil society and members of the media have been up in arms over two pieces of proposed legislation: the Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal – both of which could be used to curtail freedom of speech and the press in the country.
But South Africa is not alone. Throughout Africa, 2014 has seen good and bad developments on this front. In Namibia, information leaked to the press led to civil society protesting against a proposed amendment to the country’s constitution. Thanks to press participation, the process has been stalled. Mozambique’s parliament is currently debating an Access To Information bill, that would make it the fifteenth African country to pass a law specifically guaranteeing the public’s right to access to information.
Zimbabwe and Somalia, meanwhile, have less than spectacular records when it comes to the press: in Zimbabwe several journalists were allegedly assaulted by the police. In Somalia 19 journalists were arrested and detained by the government, while a media law has been drafted that would force journalists to reveal their sources. In Zambia, three journalists were sentenced to three years’ hard labour for “publishing false news with intent to cause fear or alarm.” There are other examples – too many to go into here, save to say that the continent has a long way to go.
Repression isn’t always violent. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa: “Throughout the SADC, the use of outmoded laws to target journalists and stifle freedom of expression is a major cause of concern. From Tanzania down to Lesotho and South Africa, these laws have been used to ban newspapers, target individual journalists and criminalise free speech. Criminal defamation laws appear to be a popular choice for many governments for the exercise for these purposes.” Not a violent option, but an effective one nonetheless.
“We must not speak for one party or another. We have to stand for the spirit of freedom, democracy and tolerance.” – Trevor Ncube, Chief Executive of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, Zimbabwe’s The Standard and The Zimbabwe Independent
Another worrying development has been then growth of media as manipulator. African Media Initiative’s chief executive Eric Chinje says that hate speech in the media “is happening all around us. All of a sudden, Africa again is becoming the land of strife. And in different ways – it’s not always like Rwanda in 1994 but there is a growing sense of exclusion on the continent, and the media appears to be a part of it.” Clearly, for media to retain credibility, it must have both editorial independence and subscribe to a code of ethics.
HOLD LEADERS ACCOUNTABLE
Independence in Media creates transparency in government and business. A corrupt leader – be they a businessperson or a politician – cannot assume a ‘divine right of kings’, as despots did in the past. In a democracy, leaders are accountable to the voters.
“I’d rather be closed because of an article that the government does not like, instead of being closed because of not registering or not complying with licensing requirements. But what we will never do is to give up our independence from all sides and parties. I believe that this credibility is one of the reasons for our survival.” – Trevor Ncube, Chief Executive of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, Zimbabwe’s The Standard and The Zimbabwe Independent
By educating the public, an independent media informs the public, to help them make better choices when it comes to electing officials. Sadly, in Africa we see people making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons – people who vote for a dominant party because that’s what they’ve always done, or because they fear upsetting the powers that be. We observe too much of this type of flawed thinking in the rural communities where service delivery is poor – and yet the long-suffering community continues to vote for the same bad leadership. Only education and information can empower the poor to make better choices for themselves, and use the ballot-box as a lever for change.
By stimulating debate and discourse, independent media has a role to play in encouraging leaders to make better decisions across the board. The media can provide a two-way channel that filters out the noise and allows constructive communication to happen between politicians and the electorate, between business leaders and workers. It also allows for diversity by giving voice to minority views.
A healthy, independent media will also encourage investment – especially direct foreign investment. Developed nations want to invest in growth economies, but only if they are stable and have long-term prospects. A sure sign of this is a media that is free and open. An absence of corruption, along with a market that is independently owned, implies that a fair tender process can take place, which in turn would mean that the country as a whole is getting the best deal.
INDEPENDENCE AIDS GROWTH
Opening up markets and promoting fair trade practices, both on the micro and macro levels, will promote growth and ultimately be better for all stakeholders.
Independent media is everything to Africa as we stand poised for huge growth. Enjoy this edition of The Media Report, which focuses on independence – not only independence in journalism, but independence in media research as well.
I look forward to hearing what you enjoyed in this issue, and what you’d like to see more of in our next issue.
CEO : Ornico