by Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

The freedom of a country’s press and the vibrancy of its media provide a reliable yardstick for measuring overall levels of freedom and openness in that society.

This point was ironically made clear when the apartheid government decided to clamp down on that infamous Wednesday, 19 October 1977. They lumped media organisations, political movements and community bodies into one category.

In the wake of the student uprisings in Soweto the previous year and the murder of Steve Biko a month earlier, the Nationalist government thought that it could quell the rising tide of resistance against its rule. They banned and jailed individuals and shut down newspapers that were considered to be spreading subversive material.

This month we remember that dark chapter in the histories of our local media and politics. It is an opportunity to reflect on the devastating impact that lapses in professionalism have on society. Sadly the events of recent weeks have once again revealed the price of negligence.

Imperfect though it is the South African media has contributed positively to the national discourse. It has informed the public when the state would have preferred ignorance and even silence. It has shown the light when those in power preferred darkness and it has revealed truths that have shifted the centres of power. This was not only achieved during the dark days of apartheid but also in the following hopeful days of our democratic rule.

Black Wednesday on 19 October 1977 is a reminder of how effective journalism can be a thorn in the side of evildoers. The last refuge for the hopeless. Media freedom has been a friend — not a foe — to the people of South Africa and, indeed, of the world.

Unfortunately the chase to be the first to break the news has its own cost. It is evident from the apologies issued in recent days that what is thought to be a scoop could in fact be a millstone, firmly tied around the neck of the publication’s credibility.

This has correctly placed the media under harsh scrutiny.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the importance that freedom of expression has in a democracy like ours. The media is much too important to society. It cannot be allowed to flounder and lose its anchor. Neither can it be a power unto itself.

We have seen that the media is susceptible to being used as a pawn by those with ignoble intentions. Journalists can be prone to unethical conduct or at best too trusting and naïve to see the real intentions of those who seek to use news platforms to spread falsehoods.

Still we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Only those who stand to benefit from ignorance and indifference can celebrate a scenario where the media has lost all credibility.

Media owners and practitioners must use these embarrassing episodes as an opportunity to reflect on how they do what they do. And to commit to change for the better. This applies to those already implicated in wrongdoings and those not yet caught.

While it is wise to learn from one’s own mistakes it is wiser still to learn from those of others. Society needs journalists that are not only robust but self-reflective.