Opinionista Faith Muthambi 20 October 2015

Media has a key role to play in advancing the dialogue of national unity

In a vibrant democracy such as ours there will always be contested areas in the media landscape. To raise the issue of the media agenda and transformation is not to say that government in any way intends to dictate to the media or stifle debates carried on those platforms.

As we commemorate the 38th anniversary of Press Freedom Day, we also take this opportunity to honour the life of award-winning journalist and editor Percy Qoboza. He was a man who used his craft and writing prowess to fight the oppressive machinery of the apartheid state. A brave critic of apartheid, Qoboza held the brutal regime to account in his editorial pages, and, through his pen, challenged the nation’s moral consciousness.

In an article he penned in 1981, Qoboza had this message for white readers: ”If you sometimes get mad at me, because the sentiments I express keep you awake at night, then I am glad … If many of us can be kept awake at night, then maybe we will do the sensible thing – talk together about our joint future.”

It was under Qoboza’s stewardship as editor that The World newspaper portrayed the voice of black South Africa, pushed the envelope in holding a mirror to society and reflected the atrocities that many black people had to endure.

After Qoboza’s death, media still has a key role to play in advancing the national dialogue of national unity and social cohesion. Our transition from apartheid to democracy meant social cohesion and national unity were not automatically bestowed upon us.

Constructing a united and prosperous society is not the responsibility of government alone. The media is called upon to use its influence and resources to help develop the country we envisaged in 1994.

We believe that it is through continuous dialogue on a range of national issues such as safety, health, education, employment and rural development that we can advance our democracy.

However, in a vibrant democracy such as ours there will always be contested areas in the media landscape. To raise the issue of the media agenda and transformation is not to say that government in any way intends to dictate to the media or stifle debates carried on those platforms.

Given that we are more than 21 years into our democracy, it becomes necessary to assess all contributions towards the non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society that we envisioned at the start of our democracy.

There is greater room for a changing face of media along with the rest of society. Government yearns to see the emergence of a plurality of voices who will all tell the South African story as they see it.

There should be more representivity in newsrooms and diversity on the boards of media houses. Statistics show that only 14% of the mainstream print media are managed by black people, with the participation of women at board and senior management levels limited to a mere 4%. This has implications on the kind of news that finds its way onto the pages of our newspapers, television and radio news bulletins.

Through robust engagements and wide ranging consultations with media owners, industry associations, Parliament and the public, we want to ensure that transformation in the media industry becomes a reality.

The Department of Communications is kick-starting these discussions around transformation through our draft discussion document: ‘Towards a Policy on Media Transformation and Diversity’.

I am confident that this document will elevate the level of debate and spur us into action that will bring about positive and lasting change.

To take us forward there should also be a media transformation charter that targets diversifying the media in terms of ownership, employment, content and language. It must address the specifics of the industry, including setting deadlines and targets to meet transformation objectives.

As we mark National Media Freedom Day, I believe that Percy Qoboza would be proud of the many strides we have made since the dark days of apartheid.

It has been a long, hard and arduous journey that we collectively embarked on to enshrine the freedom to inform and be informed. It is something we can never take for granted.

While there is still much to do I am convinced that we can build on the positive inroads we have made and together move South Africa forward.

Let us continue to ensure that in our collective work we put South Africa first by putting forth the narrative of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society. DM

Faith Muthambi is the communications minister.

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