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There’s more to media freedom than the Secrecy Bill
2012-05-04

4 May 2012

 “Media freedom is a universal human right. It cannot be abolished, but it should be managed.” The freedom of the media is protected by numerous formal documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the South African Constitution, and is commemorated annually with the celebration of World Press Freedom Day.

 “As long as those in power have something to hide, media freedom will be under threat. This is a war that takes place on many fronts,” says Ms Willemien Marais, a journalism lecturer at the Department of Communication Science at the University of the Free State (UFS).

“On the one hand we have to take a stand against institutional threats such as the proposed Protection of State Information Bill. This is diametrically opposed to everything that media freedom and freedom of expression encapsulates.

“But on the other hand we also need to educate and transform our society. It is not only up to journalists to defend media freedom. Newspaper reports on the public hearings on this Bill earlier this year proved that ignorance concerning media freedom is a big threat. The lack of resistance against the Secrecy Bill from the general population clearly illustrates that people aren’t aware of what they are about to lose.”

 Ms Marais says the rise of social media and the accompanying awareness of individual freedom of expression have paved the way for more people to exercise this right. “The role of social media in the Arab Spring has been highlighted numerous times. The power of social media is undeniable – but alas, so is the lack of access to especially social media. We can only increase media literacy if we increase people’s access to the media – new and traditional.”

A high level of media literacy is also vital following last month’s recommendation by the Press Freedom Commission of a system of independent co-regulation for South Africa’s print media. This system proposes replacing government regulation with a panel consisting of representatives from the print industry as well as members of the general public. “It is abundantly clear that this system can only work if those members of the general public are media literate and understand the role of media freedom in protecting democracy.”

“The media is not a sentient being – it consists of and is run by people, and human beings are fallible. Protecting media freedom does not only mean fighting institutional threats. It also means increasing media literacy by educating people. And it means owning up to your mistakes, and correcting it.” 

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