As the year 2008 slowly but surely disappears, it is time for the media to do some critical retrospection to see if it's correctly fulfilled its role of a Fourth Estate and respected its ethical codes. These two sets of self-examination are compulsory if the press wants to be trusted by communities in which it serves and continues to be seen as playing a vital role in a democratic and free society.
It has been a very interesting year for South African media, and as usual, reporters - operating with limited resources amid tight deadlines set by ‘news-thirsty' gatekeepers - have done a titanic job in producing prime time news in an electrically-charged media environment.
Media watchers and observers are divided as to which event deserves to be placed on top of the 2008 news charts.
Some observers say the country's changing political scene, triggered by the Judge Nicholson ruling temporarily absolving Jacob Zuma's ‘financial sins', must be awarded the ‘News of the Year Award'.
Consequently, the ANC stripped Thabo Mbeki of his presidency, prompting several of its members to leave and join the new kid on block, the Congress of the People (COPE).
William Bird, executive director of the Media Monitoring Project (MMP), told Bizcommunity.com, “This was not only a huge political event but an equally important event in the run-up to the judgement, with media space being filled with opinion pages and features on the ruling, as well as bigger issues relating to the Constitution.”
But there are others who believe that news on ANC Youth League controversial president Julius Malema should be the main highlight of the year.
However, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, probably fed-up by the media's hammering of Malema, said that the SA media was suffering from Malemaphobia. Critics described this condition as a ‘rare disease', which can only be cured if Malema could turn his tongue seven times before speaking and respect the elders - a vital aspect of African culture.
Bird said: “I would be cautious about Malemaphobia as it implies an irrational fear of him. Certainly, he was portrayed in an unfair manner in some cases, but for most parts the media was doing its job in reporting on him and his utterances.”
Apart from the removal of Mbeki and ANC split, Bird also listed the SABC crises, Nelson Mandela's birthday and xenophobic violence as significant political media events.
On xenophobia, Bird said that despite media outlets such as Daily Sun playing a negative role in the violence by perpetuating stereotypes and only condemning the violence two weeks after it had started, media played a key role in encouraging action, working with people to donate and assist with the victims of violence.
Press freedom under threat
But, for many media practitioners and press freedom activists, 2008 will go down as the year when press freedom came under threat from the ruling ANC, which slammed media self-regulation and hinted the establishment of a Media Appeal Tribunal (MAT), to ‘hold it accountable for publishing ‘untruths'.
Next year's big stories are likely to be elections and the next government (how it will look like), the SABC board and attempts to resolve new crises, new broadcasting and digital regulations and JZ's legal matters, Bird predicted, regretting that issues of gender-based violence, child abuse and HIV/Aids continue to receive less coverage.