Dr Iqbal Survé: Consider the cost of silence if there is no media freedom
Cape Town - This week South Africa remembers the 43rd anniversary of Black Wednesday. This was the day on which media freedom - and that of all the people of South Africa to have a right to express themselves - was silenced and heralded the banning of black consciousness under the apartheid regime.
Fast forward to 2020, and while we have won the right for there to be a fully representative and free media, we cannot ever take it for granted. Everyone has a right to privacy but when it is in the public’s best interest to know, then even the stories no one wants told need to find the light of day.
Below is an abridged version of an article I wrote in June this year, when our right to know the truth about the national lockdown and Covid-19 was under challenge. It is as pertinent then as it is now.
Freedom of the press is roughly defined as no government shall control what media can and cannot say, save for, in this country, what is held in our Constitution as hate or racist speech.
For true media freedom to exist, there needs to be a balance of viewpoints - the good, the bad and the ugly, the rich and the poor, educated or not, ill or healthy, all races and cultures and even the animal kingdom. All deserve to have their voices heard.
Excluding any specific sector from the conversation effectively divides and segregates. In a country still healing from the wounds of division, a robust media is critical to the success of our still young democracy.
Lessons from the past and our current paradigm show that in times of crisis there is a tendency for those wielding power - whether economic or political - to want to control the narrative. This we have to safeguard against, at all costs.
That the media space is changing is not in dispute here. The fight for readers’ attention has become ever fiercer, as the number of channels increase and readers desert traditional sources of information in favour of their favourite social media platform and “influencer”. This race for a share of the revenue, viewership and readership pie have not in any way explained the nature of the attacks on Independent Media, though.
Looking at South Africa’s past, the media was largely a voice for the state. Ownership of the conversation was limited, with large swathes of the population excluded. It served to create a false reality, which many, still today, find hard to grasp.
In order then to truly understand the full picture of life in South Africa, it is important to not only include more reporters of colour, different cultures and outlooks, but ownership of the media space and the executives who actively lead the organisations, too.
The first large-scale shift in transforming the media space occurred when Sekunjalo Investment Media bought Independent Media in 2013.
Since then, there has been much attention levelled at us, and me personally - mostly negative and from competing media houses (print, online and broadcast).
This is not necessarily unusual, since media owners are generally given a hard time and especially in a highly competitive market. However, this unprecedented focus has caused me to question what lies beneath
As a reminder, Independent Media titles - print and online - share a diversity of viewpoints representative of the wider South Africa. This diversity is carried through into the make-up of the company itself, with an employee base truly reflecting the demographics of the country. Independent Media publishes in English and vernacular languages and is the most widely distributed print media across the country.
The stories, opinions and insights carried by Independent Media are rooted in the reality that is everyday living and working in the cultural melting pot that is South Africa. Prior to 2013, readers’ perspectives were still largely shaped by a narrow narrative.
Now, Independent Media presents the populace with a far more representative view of what happens on the ground and in the boardroom.
This stance has not always been welcomed by the establishment. Nor is our encouragement of readers to consider alternative perspectives and to think beyond the flat pages or screens of their news feeds to form their own opinions.
In bringing in young blood to learn from some of the best in the industry at Independent Media, I believe that South Africans now have a far clearer view of the poor, the working class, the rural community, as well as geopolitical news. Independent Media has also actively promoted the international relations and foreign policy position of the South African government aligned to the BRICS grouping. This has often been interpreted to be pro-East and by implication therefore, as anti-West, when in actual fact, Independent Media carries commentary from across the globe.
Beyond the boardroom, Independent Media strives to stick to its principles of giving all political parties equal space - without prejudice, fear or favour. It is our obligation as media to responsibly convey the truth - even if it hurts - from all sides. In the media space, the battle lines have been drawn with fairness and balanced views in reporting in jeopardy.
Our role as press in a free democracy that promotes freedom of expression is to be fair to all the citizens of this country, who have the right to know what their political and business leaders have done, or will do, to come to power and remain there, in order to govern us all - politically or economically or both.
It could well be, then, that in ripping off the Band-Aid patching our country together and exposing the less than savoury side of politics and corporate interference, that Independent Media has courted serious disfavour.
The truth is clearly hurting that means we are doing our job and it also means that we will continue to call it like it is because, truth be told, consider the cost of silence if we are to be muted.
* Dr Iqbal Survé is the chairperson of Independent Media and Sekunjalo Investment Holdings