In this piece, media update’s Nakedi Phala dissects the South African National Editors’ Forum’s (SANEF) report from the Media Ethics and Credibility Inquiry, which offers vital information on ethics and the responsibility placed on media practitioners in South Africa. 

Our country has a rich history of media rights and ethics. The industry has undergone some major conflicts and successes since the dawn of democracy in 1994, but this topic has always been dependent on the reliability of media players, including journalists and other writers.

Back in 2011, the Mail & Guardian newspaper published a black banner across its lead page that read, “Censored, we’re unable to bring you this story in full due to threats of criminal prosecution.” This move rocked South Africa and had PR professionals and journalists scrambling to catch up. This case illustrates the power of the media and the incredible responsibility that comes with being a player in the industry.

This is also set out in the Protection of Information Bill, which makes it an offense to share evidence gathered in camera (that is, evidence given in private) by Section 28. Such an offense carries the looming threat of 15 years in prison if convicted.

Fast forward to the SANEF-triggered Media Ethics and Credibility Inquiry in 2019. This happened after the frequent withdrawals on a number of articles in the Sunday Times newspaper between 2011 and 2016.

With that said, here’s what the inquiry means for the media industry: 

Setting a precedent 

Just like in legal proceedings, the report can be used as a measuring stick for future cases that arise. 

It serves as a lesson to media houses on the repercussions of unethical behaviour. This sets the tone for what journalists should and shouldn’t be doing. 

News24 editor-in-chief and SANEF Deputy Chairperson Adriaan Basson explains the crux of the report, saying there’s a need to educate journalists more on ethics and credibility. “Owners of television stations and newspapers need to understand [that] they cannot impose their agenda on editors and we need to see to it that line is not crossed and it’s respected.” 

Such precedents will save time, resources and money on future investigations. This means that any future inquiries will have an example to draw from during deliberations, keeping writers, journalists and practitioners on the straight and narrow. 

Essentially, this creates a structure of fairness and accountability for affected parties because new matters with similar merits can rely on the findings of previous ones. 

Introducing fresh views on ethics 

The recent inquiry will help media owners and journalists keep a finger on the pulse of ethical behaviour. 

Basson explains “The interference of management in editorial is one of the biggest concerns SANEF is faced with. [This is] keeping in mind that, in South Africa, we’ve got a great tradition of owners respecting the editorial independence of editors.”

Taking this insight into account, it’s clear that there’s still a way to go in tightening up their ethics policies.

Making the media space a better place to work

Another benefit of the report is the lessons that it provides young journalists in setting their career off to the best possible start. It also serves as a refresher course for industry veterans. 

According to Basson, “Considering what occurred at the Sunday Times specifically, the report paid attention to the issue of political interference through the media to portray a one-sided narrative on a particular story.”

“For example, with the South African Revenue Services' rogue unit story, the Sunday Times gave a one-sided narrative and [was] not being open to other versions of the story. For all journalists, this should serve as a lesson that we should always be open to hearing the other side of the narrative to be able to reassess the facts overall and if the story still holds.”

To be an ethical journalist — and a respected one — you have to strive for fairness in all aspects and never allow your judgment to be clouded by political agendas and influences arising from management. 

On the bright side, South Africa is climbing the ranks in global media freedom ratings, ranking at 31 since 2019 in the freedom of the press index.

The media ethics report carries interesting details that are food for thought. Do you think the Media Ethics and Credibility Inquiry report will influence the industry to be more ethical? Let us know in the comments section. 

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