The University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg South Africa last Wednesday 9th and Thursday 10th March played host to journalists, media practitioners, lawyers and those concerned with media rights and protection from 21 African countries at a conference on the Roles and Responsibilities of Africa’s media.
The conference discussed the Right To Know and Access to Information, Models of Regulation, Issues of Self Regulation, transformation and democratization in the media, the role of Government and Mechanisms of Accountability.
In his welcome address Professor Loyiso Nongxa Vice Chancellor of Wits University pointed out that the media and the university are both critical for the survival of a nation. In a cheerful manner he said that next year the university of Wits will be 90 while the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will be 100 so he called on the journalist that he would like to see the headline that ‘next year Wits will be 90 as ANC turns 100.
The keynote address delivered by a former Constitutional Court Judge Justice Kate O’Regan set the tone of the conference by delving into the issues of freedom of speech and its attendant rights duties and obligations as they are interpreted in law and also how they relate to the practice of journalism.
She dispelled the age old saying that sticks and stones would break my back but words would not hurt me pointing out that speech is indeed harmful.
Examples from the Canadian, Nigerian and South African experiences on access to information were shared by different speakers with the contribution from the floor centering on the access to information and freedom of information legislations.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Saskatchewan in Canada disclosed that of all those who requested information through the Freedom of Information (FOI) law in Canada for one year only 14% of those requests actually came from journalists. This dispelled the notion carried by politicians that FOI laws are meant to primarily aid and be used by journalists. He also pointed out that when journalists actually accessed police files they discovered who and who were most likely to be stopped for what traffic offences and this led to a big human rights issue on racial profiling by the police.
The Nigerian presenter Maxwell Kadiri who is the Asociate Legal Officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative said that the Right To Information (RTI) is seen by politicians as “another way for the media to hound and harass government and government officials.” The disclosed how the fight to have the RTI bill in Nigeria has been going on for 15 years. He said under President Obasanjo the bill had been passed by both houses but President Obasanjo refused to give his assent saying that he did not like the title and that the title was a camouflage. He said when the bill got o the Nigerian council of ministers they said decriminalising media libel and abuse of the president must be retained in the bill. In Ghana he said President Kuffour promised on winning the presidency that he would address the issue of FOI yet for the 8years that he was in office the draft bill never left his cabinet in his office. The parliamentarians he said claimed that the FOI was an elitist document and they would not want to trample on the opinion of the public.
On the South African experience Nic Dawes Editor-in-Chief of the Mail & Guardian disclosed that President Thabo Mbeki in 2007 after the Zambian elections chose three judges to go look at the elections and write a report. The judges dutifully did their work and submitted the report. So after a short while the Mail & Guardian asked to see what was in that report and they went to court, only for them to be told that the report was not a public document because it had not been discussed by cabinet. Yet he argued it was tax payers money that was used to commission the document so why is not a public document. These were all the hurdles he said concluding that democracies everywhere are going to be noisy places.
Then it was the turn of the regulators and the British system of the press complaints commission was explained.
George Sarpong who is the Executive Secretary of the National Media Commission of Ghana then explained how they were able to fight off the politicians. He explained that in Ghana it was the Commission which was responsible for the setting up of the Board of the State Broadcasters. This way he said the politicians were not able to determine who runs the State Broadcaster and so limited their influence. However he said that he had gone to all the regions with their constitutional review commission and that everywhere that they went for a public hearing the people were saying that they should find a way of controlling the media.
The discussion however centered around allowing the state to regulate or self regulating. This was against the back drop that South Africa was planning to set up a tribunal for policing the media and counties also were showing their intention of going down that way. These moves were roundly condemned by the participants and included in the final communique. The conference was jointly sponsored by the British and Canadian High Commissions and jointly hosted by the South African National Editors Forum and the Wits school of journalism.
By Kelvin Lewis in South Africa