The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) South Africa hosted a discussion forum aimed at identifying strategies to enhance citizen participation in collecting, reporting and disseminating information. The discussion forum formed part of MISA South Africa’s annual general meeting on 25 July 2008 in Johannesburg.
Among the issues raised was the kind of media South Africa requires to enhance citizen participation. Speaking at the event, Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), executive director, Jane Duncan, pointed out that it is important that the country establish a media platform which is accessible to all South Africans. She said this is particularly necessary given that most South Africans feel unable to participate in the mainstream media.
Chief executive officer of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Tseliso Thipanyane, said that the media is an institution whose role is to deliver information fairly and without discrimination. He proposed that media professionals receive training in order to understand the Constitution and human rights. He argued that the media must be ethically empowered to exercise professionalism and fairness in order to report from a human rights perspective.
Media Monitoring Project executive director, William Bird, stressed that way in which the media represents particular issues raises serious questions about their role in a democratic country. Using the Daily Sun as an example, he argued that the way in which the newspaper reports incidents of mob justice, legitimises violence as a means of solving the problem of crime. The Daily Sun’s coverage of the recent xenophobic violence is another case in point. The MMP has filed a complaint with the Press Ombudsman and the SAHRC against the Daily Sun for supporting xenophobia in its reporting, including amongst other issues, citing the use of words such as alien as “discriminatory”.
Proposals around the establishment of a statutory media tribunal have been met with skepticism and concern. The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) secretary-general, Mary Papayya, has warned the public about politicians who are pushing for state control on the media. The Independent Online recently quoted Papayya as saying, “We need to be wary of how political control encroaches on reporting.”
Thipanyane argued that even though criticism is part of exercising democracy, the media has a responsibility to report fairly. He warned that if the public continue to perceive the media negatively, the government would eventually want to control it and any interference would lead to censorship.
As the Women’s Month gets underway, women continue to be underrepresented, stereotyped and discriminated by the mainstream media. According to the MMP, “the level of women speaking in the media is still way below 50 percent. When women do speak, their roles are often limited to victims, family of somebody or when they are celebrities.”