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Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Extending freedom of expression, and access to information

Representatives of the South African media community held a discussion recently with a group of Finnish and African journalists brought to Southern Africa by Finland's Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) - at a seminar on media freedom held in Johannesburg Presentations at the seminar outlined historical and current issues affecting access to information and media production in South Africa and throughout Southern Africa.

The presentations were chaired by Peter Fabricius, foreign editor at Sekunjulo/Independent Newspapers. Speakers included: Professor Anton Harber, head of the School of Journalism at the University of Witswatersrand (Wits), co-founder of the Weekly Mail (which has since become the Mail and Guardian) and chairperson of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI); founder and member of SOS SABC campaign working group, Kate Skinner; and Amina Frense, managing editor at SABC, and chairperson of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ).

Media freedom, and access to informationAnton Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University and chair of South Africa’s Freedom of Expression Institute

Professor Harber placed the work of Freedom of Expression Institute in context, noting that South Africa has enjoyed media freedom since 1994, but that legislation introduced and in prospect has threatened media freedom in the country, and continues to do so - and that entities such as the FXI seek to balance pressures on media that limit accurate and open reporting. Professor Harber located FXI within a cluster of organisations seeking to bring government to account over freedom of information. FXI is about freedom of expression for all, Professor Harber said; it is not just a campaign group for journalists. His own research has revealed, too, that there are areas of South Africa which have no voice in media, no local media operation, and he seeks a role for that FXI in bringing high quality reporting  to communities hitherto lacking in media access and representation. This includes broadcasting, and Professor Harber's concerns include the state of public broadcasting and the critical need to improve the work of SABC, the nation's key public sector broadcasting entity.

"We have more, better, stronger investigative journalism, I think, than we have ever had in this country," Professor Harber said. This makes for an interesting environment, where journalists are constantly pressing to open up channels for reporting whilst financial and political pressure are stronger than ever. The debate over media freedom in South Africa is, therefore, centred on finance, legislature and openness. The principle and most immediate area of concern is where media has been unable to deliver newsroom functionality in the same way, or as strongly as is has done in recent decades. Professor Harber notes, for examples, that newsrooms are shrinking as the demand for immediacy increases - so, now, for example, editorial must be online and for free, as advertising remains stagnant or is in decline.

Professor Harber highlighted a new initiative then called AfricaCheck - which involves a small team of media operatives fact-checking stories where texts are questionable, or where the issues themselves may not be not fully explored. This team challenges all forms and all sizes of media entity - whether it is an African print publisher such as The Star, or an international operation such as BBC. AfricaCheck promotes a more informed, more fact-based public discussion. It has started in South Africa, and now is moving into neighbouring countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and beyond.

Campaigning for quality

On the matter of public broadcasting, Kate Skinner presented her views on the role of the South African Broadcasting Corporation in supporting impartiality in South African media. Ms Skinner believes South Africa needs a coalition to call SABC and its associates to account to improve what's wrong and retain and improve upon what is right about the broadcaster.

SOS SABC was formed in 2008 to give civil society a voice in developing public sector broadcasting. There are communities that have no other media than SABC, and so the quality of its programming matters in critical ways. Ms Skinner observed, "There are still pockets of very good programming and journalists that are a fantastic job, but there have been instabilities since around 2007" - and added that this instability has affected programming negatively - from commissioning through to production. The broadcaster has suffered financially and has had numerous changes at board level, which has pushed it to commit to a deal with private sector broadcasting firm Multichoice, meaning - according to some perspectives - that it has lost control over its archives, over current affairs reporting and with respect to the commercial motives for programme content across the board. It has also rendered SABC unable to respond effectively to the emerging digital landscape.

Kate Skinner, founder and member of the SOS SABC campaign working group Aligning experiences of commercial and legislative developments

 One might align the need for, or lack of, effective broadcasting and print media reporting - in  particular, as a consequence both of commercial and legislative developments -with the work of  the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ), which is committed to support for and  development of media freedom throughout the Southern African region. These were outlined by  Amina Frense, managing editor at SABC, and IAJ chairperson - who is keen to address concerns  for an improved media landscape through the activities of the IAJ - which was  founded in 1992  by Alistair Sparks, a media analyst, and  former editor of the Rand Daily Mail.

Mrs Frense stressed, also, that there is much that is positive for the media in South Africa. For example, the country's cabinet and its leading media figures meet annually at an indaba to discuss media representation of public and private sector concerns, and this has proved extremely beneficial in terms of developing openness in government and in relation to increasing empowerment of media entities. And there is an established South African Press Council, which has written and published a Press Code covering newsgathering and reporting, best practice with respect to privacy and also in relation to conflicts of interest, and management of sources. It is a progressive code for what should be regarded as an increasingly progressive - if still problematic - media environment.