Without media freedom, any democracy is most likely to stutter and eventually fail

By Mcebo Mpungose Time of article published Oct 20, 2020

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History has continuously taught us that the ability of journalists to report freely on social and governmental issues is a crucial indicator of democracy.

As someone born in the year 1992, I’ve lived the best parts of my life under democracy and free media. As a teenager I grew up to read on the arms deal matter, how former president Thabo Mbeki handled the HIV/Aids outbreak in South Africa, the 2008 xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals, and only a year later, Nkandlagate.

On August 16, 2012, a few months before I completed my degree in media communications and cultural studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, 34 miners were massacred in Marikana.

None of these issues would have come to light to the extent they have without media freedom in South Africa. Some people want to appear in newspapers for public relations reasons or influence, but some appear out of accountability as they are being pursued by the journalist/newspaper.

As a result of this, the term “watchdogs” has been coined, because they are there to hold people accountable, both from the private sector and government. It is good to know when the government is doing its job (service delivery is its mandate), but it is even better when the public is aware of its shortcomings and wrongdoings.

According to the World Press Freedom Index released last year by Reporters Without Borders, the South African state of press freedom is rated as satisfactory. Satisfactory is the second-best category after “good”. In this rating, South Africa is joined by countries such as the UK, Italy, France, Spain, Canada, and Australia.

Our neighbours, Zimbabwe, on the other hand, are in the red zone in terms of press freedom and in such countries, corruption and lack of service delivery thrive. What is even more concerning is that such countries then have their own state-funded media houses and they control the narrative that gets to the public.

Things have remained largely the same in Zimbabwe for the last 30 years because the government isn’t held accountable over mismanagement. Journalists or activists have been silenced by arrests or threats which continue to this day.

Relations between low-income South Africans and our neighbours who have fled countries seeking a better life in South Africa have been documented, and have continued with more frequency in recent months due to truckers being attacked.

Every time South Africans feel the pinch of rising unemployment, it has become almost ceremonial to blame foreigners and not policy. This situation isn’t helped by politicians who play on this narrative because they feel they need to have a stance on foreign policy to gain some political momentum.

A healthy democracy leads to a healthy economy which then attracts investment, which creates employment. A quick search on the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe returns mixed results ranging from 5% to 11%, and other news websites quote 90-95%, not without questioning the quality of those jobs. The truth is only the government of Zimbabwe knows how it classifies an employed person.

However, my point here is that there is an issue, there has always been one economically, whether self-inflicted or caused by sanctions (or both); without press freedom, efforts to bring change by Zimbabweans and external mediators become futile.

Reporters are at the front line of ensuring accountability. Before a commission of inquiry, before arrests are made, before people appear in court, reporters risk everything to gather information and ensure the story breaks. After it breaks, they are there to report and follow up to ensure the justice system works and that it delivers justice.

Without this freedom, any democracy is most likely to stutter and eventually fail. South Africa, fortunately, has a Constitution that preserves accountability and transparency with rules such as the right of access to information. Recently President Cyril Ramaphosa thanked the South African media for their coverage of Covid-19 and going the extra mile in ensuring citizens have all the necessary information regarding the pandemic. He also thanked the media for taking on their watchdog role in unearthing corruption and maladministration even though the news reports have been more harmful to the ruling party.

“They have fulfilled their watchdog role by unearthing acts of corruption and maladministration, sparking a massive national debate and leading to several high-profile investigations. Through this reporting, they have earned people’s trust,” he said.

He said a free press is not an end in itself. “It is a means by which democracy is secured and upheld. During this pandemic, our media has played not just its traditional watchdog role, but exercised its civic duty in supporting the national effort to contain Coronavirus.” More importantly, such reports will force the government to clean up its house. It already has had an impact but one cannot get too excited over arrests before there are convictions. That is how press freedom ensures a better future for the youth of South Africa.

It is concerning to see that, while media freedom helps ensure accountability and shape opinion on voter polls, the large number of the youth still choose to stay at home and have instead become keyboard warriors, venting their frustration on social media only to concede, in the end, that their vote doesn’t matter.

* Mcebo Mpungose is a live editor at Isolezwe.

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