Licensing Journalists Does Not Guarantee Quality News

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Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is deeply concerned by statements made by the SABC’s Acting Chief Operation Officer (COO), Hlaudi Motsoeneng, regarding the licensing of journalists. The statements were made at the annual Joburg Radio Days conference at Wits University and repeated on Talk Radio 702 yesterday.

Among other things, Hlaudi said “You know when you are a journalist, you are a professional journalist. If you don’t have ethics and principles and you mislead on your reporting, like lawyers… if you commit any mistake they take your license”. This according to Hlaudi, would lead to an improvement in the quality of journalism.

While there are legitimate concerns over the quality of reporting in South Africa, across all media, the suggestion that licensing journalists would lead to an improvement in the quality of journalism is simply not borne out by reality. Instead international evidence, both on our continent and beyond shows such efforts undermine quality journalism, as well as the basic right to freedom of expression.

There is no country which we are aware of, where there is quality journalism and where journalists are licensed. In countries that have tried to impose similar legal frameworks like Zimbabwe, the impact of such legislation has stifled media freedom to the detriment of democracy.

Instead, licensing journalists leads to and encourages a greater lack of accountability not only of the state but also corporations. It discourages transparency and limits access to information that enables people to enjoy and exercise their rights.

Even if there was the slightest possibility that legislating ethics and journalism would improve the quality of news, there is still a big problem in terms of how that should happen. Who will determine who gets a license, and what criteria will be used for issuing a license? Licensing journalists merely seeks to allow a limited, short sighted and fundamentally illogical perspective to hold sway to the detriment of ordinary people.

It is also fundamentally problematic that a person who for all intents and purposes is an Acting COO speaks to issues of ethics and editorial practices. While we encourage him to have an overview of current debates around ethical practice, he should instead focus on the critical operational challenges being faced by the SABC. We call on Hlaudi to inform us what is being done about the auditor general report – the public protector’s report as well as the special investigations unit.

Instead of moving the debate further, Hlaudi appears to be seeking to take our democracy two steps backward and fundamentally undermining any potentially good story we have to tell. We call on the SABC board to take immediate action against Hlaudi.

For more information, contact

William Bird

+2711 788 1278 / williamb@mma.org.za

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