Media freedom starts in the newsroom

Some of our editors seem determined to be their own worst enemies.

The Sowetan, still reeling from the ham-handed way it dealt with the Eric Miyeni controversy, published a front page on Monday which managed to lower the bar on bad taste even further. “Sies” was the headline above pictures of two on-duty law enforcement officers having sex. It was accompanied by a note in which the editors tried to say they felt obliged to splash this on their front page in the public interest.

The fact that the paper sold out within hours will strengthen the argument of those who say many of our editors are only concerned to maximize their sales, no matter how low they have to go to do it.
It drew the attention of the prurient Film and Publications Board, who said the paper had contravened the law. The last thing we need is to give our film censors an excuse to pay attention to newspapers, which is not and should not be their terrain.

There have been other recent examples of editorial short-sightedness which undermine the credibility of journalists and newspapers. The Sunday Times commissioned myself and three others to hold an inquiry in 2008 into a series of editorial problems at the paper and then tried to bury the report we produced. They failed to practice the transparency and accountability they were demanding of others with political and economic power.

Eventually, as is almost always the case, the report was leaked and this revisited the paper’s embarrassment. In the meanwhile, the Sunday Times had undermined the media’s argument for a culture of openness. It looked like they will not themselves keep to the standards they demand of.
This is not unrelated to the fact that the group of newspapers around the Sunday Times, all owned by Avusa, have now had three incidents of columns which got into print through negligence and which led to public outcries and summary dismissals of the columnists involved. One of the effects of this is likely to be heightened nervousness – and therefore blandness – among opinion writers.

The Star has also been taking careful aim at its feet. It has in recent months had to back off somewhat embarrassingly from a screaming front page report misquoting Julius Malema, as well as one suggesting the Public Protector was about to be arrested – both of which turned out to be based on shaky evidence.

Errors will always happen in the high-pressure world of journalism, more so at a time when speed is more important than ever. But you would think that when there are calls from the ruling party to take action against irresponsible, editors would be carefully weighting and assessing the risk they take.

Perhaps the most egregious example of podiatric pot-shots from journalists came this last weekend when almost all of the media ignored the Right 2 Know protest march to the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.

The Right 2 Know works hard to bring citizens and civil society into the battle for media freedom, arguing that the government’s recent threats to free speech are an attack not just on the media and journalists, but on every citizens’ rights and powers. Deprive us of information, they are arguing, and you are disempowering citizens of their capacity to pursue and protect their rights.

You would think the media would welcome and trumpet such displays of solidarity. But, with a few notable exceptions, getting editors our of their offices to come and fight for their rights – or even just report on the fight – seems difficult.

Like cabinet ministers, senior editors can easily come to live in a bubble, oblivious to the fact that newspapers and journalists are not always liked or admired by the public on which they depend. My experience doing research in Diepsloot made it clear to me that people are skeptical and even hostile to the media because of the way it treats them – either not covering them and their interests at all, or doing it in a demeaning way.

Which all goes to show that the fight for media freedom really starts in the newsroom.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, 17 August 2011

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