A thriving democracy needs a free media

By William Baloyi

A key component to any thriving democracy is a free and independent media. Prior to 1994, the media routinely suffered harassment and censorship and the public was routinely misled by half-truths and outright lies.

But South Africa has undergone many changes since the onset of democracy, when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically-elected president.
Among the most profound changes brought about by our new democratic order was the commitment by the new government to media freedom. The advent of democracy brought about radical changes in terms of the freedom afforded to the South African media to do their work.

The process also freed the media to play an enabling role in our young democracy.
The media quickly became one of the major conduits for encouraging democratic debate – with the fourth estate assuming its watchdog role to speak truth to power through social commentary and investigative reporting into corruption and wrongdoing.

The protection of the media and freedom of speech is enshrined in our constitution, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes— (a) freedom of the press and other media; (b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; (c) freedom of artistic creativity; and (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

The freedoms that are enshrined in our constitution give journalists room to do their work, and to be bearers of accountability and empowerment. The South African media has been described as “sturdy, diverse and dynamic” at a time when journalism is becoming an increasingly hazardous occupation in several parts of the world where democracy is undermined.

Commenting on the release of the latest World Press Freedom Index, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “As a relatively new democracy compared to those with more entrenched traditions of constitutionalism, we should be proud of our promotion of a free and independent media.”

The president added: “Media freedom, like so many of the rights contained in our constitution, is hard-won. It thrives in an environment where the media itself exercises due caution to be credible, accurate, fair and truthful, always.”

As the country gears up for the general elections next year, the role of the media will be crucial. Now more than ever before, our country needs a media that interrogates misinformation, while playing an enabling role to deepen our democracy.
And as citizens prepare to exercise their civic responsibility, they will look up to the media for information about voter registration and election readiness. This is the role the media must unflinchingly play.

As a country, we should be proud we have a strong and independent media, which continues to report on the state of our nation, both good and bad. With the rise of social media, artificial intelligence and web-based content, the role of the media continues to change. However, what remains constant is the need for the media to contribute to a process of building a vibrant democracy, and becoming a tool committed to informing and empowering an active citizenry willing to engage.

Baloyi is chief director of the Government Communication and Information System

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