Address by Nelson Mandela at the 10th Anniversary celebrations of the Institute of Advanced Journalism, Johannesburg

14 June 2002

We would be disappointed if anybody here present thought it necessary for us to say what an honour and privilege it is to give the address at this occasion.

Our commitment to the defence of a free, independent and robustly critical press had been stated over and over since we entered public life after our release from prison; and even more so when we assumed office as President of the country; and equally emphatically every time the occasion arose after our departure from office.

We know that as President then, we spoke on behalf of the entire government. We are confident that today as retired President we articulate the sentiments of our successor and his government when we say that the freedom of the press and its inalienable right to be our critic and mirror are under no threat in this democracy.

As in our time in government, and I am certain in the life of the current government, we think it is part of the democratic process that we can take vigorous issue with the media when we regard it as appropriate without that in any way implying a right on our part to infringe on the freedom of the press.

We read through the background material the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism sent to us in preparation for this address. We were struck by how often the occasions and events in the history of the Institute were described as a FIRST.

For example: in 1993 there was a first South African national journalism trainers conference. And as recently as 2001 there was a first full market research survey.

We must honour and respect institutions and individuals that initiated these achievements in our national life. We must congratulate the Institute, it staff and its associates for the work that they have done in these ten years of existence. The timeframe of their work runs almost exactly parallel to that of democratic governance in our country.

The most complimentary way in which we can honour such work is to wish that we have now as a society and a people progressed way beyond the phase of celebrating a FIRST. The work done will be most solidly vindicated if we can now regard those markers of achievement as ingrained characteristics of our national life.

Non-racial democratic governance is a recent advent in the life our country. The spirit of and passionate desire for democracy, however, has a long history in this country. We can take it back much further than this particular date, but suffice to point out that the African National Congress, established in 1912, had as its core mission the achievement of a democratic order that would include all South Africans.

Vigorous debate, within the organisation and in the various public forums available, was from its inception the lifeblood of the organisation.

We know, for example, that Professor André Odendaal who now heads up the Robben Island Museum published a study on the role newspapers and other publications in the indigenous languages played in advancing the democratic struggle even before the turn of the century and the establishment of the ANC. His book on this subject is appropriately called Vukani Bantu!

We make these comments so that on the one hand it is not imagined that the role of the media in advancing and sustaining democracy is something that we are to be taught for the first time; and on the other hand that we remain conscious and reminded of how crucial that role of the media is.

South Africa is both a new democratic state and a country in which the democratic struggle and instinct have been alive and active for a long time. The role of the media in sustaining the democratic struggle is well understood. How the forces of democratic governance and a civil society interact is the challenge we face and have to work through as a continuing and dynamic process in our new democracy.

There is an old saying that freedom and order are constantly in tension with one another in society. Order without freedom leads to totalitarianism. Freedom without order leads to anarchy. It is also said that societies recover quicker and more healthily from too much freedom than they do from totalitarianism.

If all of this sounds too abstract, let me then say it in simpler terms.

We would hope that the public media in South Africa develops a greater professional integrity and responsibility. Be critical guardians of democracy and freedom, but respect your audience, the targets of your criticism and reporting, but above else your own integrity as a social institution.

In the end, it demeans all of us in society if one picks up a newspaper and disbelieves its stories at the start, waiting for further proof before you give credence to it. Or, if one detects basic flaws in stories and reports that could have been easily corrected by good basic journalism and editing.

But above all we are saying: South Africa should put the freedom of its press and media at the top of its priorities as a democracy. None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to even suggest faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced.

A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press.

That is the tradition of the liberation and democratic movement.

That is, I am confident, the future path of our government and of our society.

The role of the Institute, celebrating its tenth anniversary, is to ensure that journalism of quality plays its role in the future of our democracy.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation