What is the role of media?

The South African media has a good "freedom dispensation" but it is not the best on the continent, says the head of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, Professor Guy Berger.

He said some studies saw Mali and Ghana as countries with more media freedom than South Africa.

But he felt that in practice the South African media was prepared to "speak truth to power" and confront abuses.

"On the whole we have a media that does serve us as a society," said Berger.

"The one question we need to look at is access to the media, because in terms of really communicating with the mass of the population, we need to have a lot more media."

Berger said this media weakness was shown up by the coverage of the many service delivery protests taking place.

"There is a huge lack of accountability and a very problematic communications flow at the local level," he said.

"We really need a lot more media there to speak power at the local level, to give ordinary citizens at the local level the power to actually make a difference through communication, rather than having to resort to barricades."

Berger made these points when taking part in the SAfm Radio discussion programme, the After Eight Debate, on the media's role in communication.

The debate was held to mark Media Freedom Day, which commemorates "Black Wednesday" in 1977, when the apartheid government closed three newspapers and banned many organisations.

Berger spoke of trends in the newspaper industry, with some titles, especially the tabloid variety, highlighting entertainment value rather than facts. "Sometimes you wonder if there are any facts in the entertainment," he said.

"But I think the readers often even take it as entertainment. They do not take it as pure information. But I think it would be wrong to say that all newspapers have moved into the entertainment business."

Berger said he thought that local newspapers had carried many very good and informative articles last weekend.

"These are not entertaining articles. These really are articles in the public interest."

His view was supported by a second member of the debating panel, Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe, who said the media's role was to inform, educate and entertain.

"These three are the ingredients of any public medium," he said.

"It depends on what a particular organisation wants to stress... You get people using the same ingredients to make different recipes."

Thloloe said there was a variety of media in the country and almost 700 publications had subscribed to the Press Code.

The code stated that the primary purpose of getting and distributing news and opinion was to serve society by informing citizens, enabling them to make informed judgements on the issues of the time.

A third member of the panel, Mapule Mbhalati, head of SABC Radio News, agreed the purpose of the media was to inform, educate and entertain. "I always add an extra one: keeping company. Even an introvert needs something they can hold on to, they can learn from.

"The media is supposed to be a friend, but at the same time be a teacher, an informer and to serve the role of an entertainer."

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