Media Ethics in South Africa
Joe Thloloe, South Africa’s national press ombudsman, sounded a contrarian note in his speech to The Media Project’s “Media & Religion” conference when he said South Africa’s constitution, not religion, is the best foundation for media ethics.
While the majority of conference presenters and participants called for increasing the presence of religion in South Africa’s media, Mr. Thloloe said he’s content with the way things are.
“From where I stand,” he said, “I see religion given ample space in the media. Religious leaders, who have in fact become the conscience of this country, are substantially covered. So I’m not sure if I’m missing something at this conference.”
Thloloe knew his opinion was at odds with the conference consensus, but after 45 years in journalism he is used to giving and taking criticism. His highly accomplished career included a bit of everything, from a stint in jail under Apartheid to earning a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University to presently holding a prestigious job mediating the disagreements among the press and its audiences.
Thloloe is certainly no stranger to religion. He grew up in a religious family, and he supports South Africa’s religious pluralism. Thloloe agreed that religion and religious values should not be excluded from the editorial process in journalism, since judgments are made at every step of the news cycle.
“Journalism is about values,” he said. “Values are at the core of the ethical decisions we make in the media. When an idea first lands in the newsroom, there is a decision to be made about that idea.”
Thloloe does not believe in the bias-free journalist, which is why he sees the need for codes in the first place. But for him, the ethical system established in the religiously neutral documents of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) are more than sufficient to regulate and ensure professionalism in journalism.
Mr. Thloloe discusses the term “liberal”
The critical values in these codes derive from South Africa’s constitution, said Thloloe, not religion. And the essential value for Thloloe is that the press be free of any external control. The only limit on this freedom, said Thloloe, is where it infringes on the freedom of other citizens.
Thloloe invited the Church and academia into the dialog about how to preserve journalism in South Africa, even as he defended the idea that religion and journalism should occupy different spaces in public life.
“Each institution wants the well-being of society, but has different ways of getting to it,” he concluded. “Though we have common values, we have different roles.”