The aim of these discussions is to create a platform for conversation about the Constitution and good public leadership. This particular discussion, which focused on the role and importance of the media in our democracy, was attended by guests from across the political spectrum, interested citizens, academia, civil society and the media. The speakers were Max du Preez, author, columnist and political analyst, as well as Mondli Makhanya, the deputy editor of City Press.

In his address, Max du Preez asserted that the media plays a key role in an open society in that it promotes the free flow of information and ensures that the public is aware of what is happening around them. In a country with a history of extreme secrecy it is important to safeguard media freedom to guarantee that South Africa remains an open society. He further noted that inequality and low income are major challenges to the creation of an equal and just society. Mainstream media is currently failing to advance the creation of an equal and just society, and as such, media must play its role in the transformation of society.

He stated that as the Constitution has enshrined freedom of speech and the right to access information as foundations of constitutional democracy, the media should uphold these rights and freedoms. The media must also facilitate civic education about the Constitution. In this regard he opined that the media has failed to popularise the Constitution. He continued that journalists should adopt an activist approach in the promotion of democracy, free speech, dignity and free access to information. Further, there is need for more objective investigative journalism that steers clear of political factionalism and holds the government accountable through accurate reporting. Investigative journalism should cover more than politics to include areas such as breakthroughs in health and technology.

He noted too that whilst there may be shortcomings on the part of the South African media, one of the great victories is that the media is freer than many others, for example, that of the United States of America and that of neighbouring Zimbabwe where the media is government controlled.

His closing idea was that social media, if properly managed, has the potential to be an important platform for knowledge exchange and debate on issues affecting the country. Social media skills therefore should be regarded as crucial life skills, which should be taught in schools. The role of educators is to bring fresh perspectives into contemporary problems faced by our society and to stimulate informed debates.

In his address, Mondli Makhanya spoke on the role of public opinion in enhancing the rule of law, accountability and transparency in the public sector. He cited examples such as the events that led to government’s change of policy on HIV/AIDS in the 1990s, the Protection of State Information Bill and recently, Nkandla, which forced the governing party to rethink some of its policies. He stated that public opinion can be used as a tool to influence matters of national importance. As such, everyone must realise that he or she has the power to bring positive change in society. Makhanya further observed that the media is crucial in shaping public opinion and should therefore play its role in promoting the Constitution and democracy. The media should also give a voice to the poor rural communities. Silence does not nurture democracy.

According to Makhanya, the media has succeeded in promoting social cohesion by providing a platform for people to understand each other and reconcile their differences. However, more needs to be done to address inequalities, which pose a challenge to social cohesion in the country. His concluding remarks were that the responsibility to promote social cohesion falls on every member of society, including the leadership in political, business, academia and religion.

The recent High Court litigation in Right2Know Campaign and Others v the Minister of Police and Another requesting the disclosure of the National Key Points serves as a pertinent example of the instrumentality of free media in our democratic society, as well as the need for transparency. As was held by the court, the National Key Points Act makes no provision for the secrecy concerning the identity of National Key Points. Furthermore, the judgment shows that there are limits to the extent to which national security and/or public interest can be used to curtail the access to information. It also demonstrates that free media contributes to upholding the rule of law. Without the interference of the media, such discrepancies would go unchecked.

Another example of the role played by the media in furthering an open society is the release of the Khampepe Report regarding the irregularities in the general elections held in Zimbabwe in 2002, following litigation in M&G Media Ltd v President of South Africa. The case illustrates the role of the media in strengthening the rule of law and that the responsibility can extend even beyond our borders. These examples are evidence of the power of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) in that the protection of the right to access to information cannot be arbitrarily denied and that the media is an essential avenue through which this constitutional mandate can be achieved.

It was made apparent from the above discussion that the media has an important role to play within South Africa’s constitutional democracy. However, while the media in South Africa has stimulated and facilitated debate, change and progress on many constitutional issues, there is more that remains to be done – by the media, but also by every concerned citizen – in promoting the values, rights and principles enshrined in the Constitution. Discussion and writing about the latter remain crucial to our constitutional democracy.

By Esther Gumboh and Rebecca Sibanda, Interns: Centre for Constitutional Rights