Trevor Ncube, President of the Newspaper Association of South Africa and CEO of Mail & Guardian in South Africa, delivered an impassioned and brilliant speech calling on African leaders to understand the role that the press plays in society, and particularly on the African continent. He was speaking at the opening of the World Association of Newspapers Congress in Cape Town.

“African leaders need to understand that vibrant newspapers are partners not enemies in creating democratic societies. Only by setting its people free does Africa stand a chance of catching up with the rest of the world.”

Gavin O’Reilly, President of the World Association of Newspapers, observed that the political transformation of Africa from the shackles of colonialism to African independence has been deeply flawed, if not “stillborn”.

The freedom of the press continues to be violated on a daily basis throughout the length and breadth of the African continent.

A free press is a human right, the foundation of free and economically prosperous societies, but also a powerful tool for the fight against corruption, poverty and disease. O’Reilly noted that a free press is missing as a stipulation in the Africa NEPAD peer review process, an African initiative that promotes good governance on the continent, and should be added. In a frank speech, O’Reilly addressed the South African president directly at the conference and celebrated the fact that South Africa has a vibrant and free press, but expressed some concern over recent legislation that local media was up in arms about (legislation now shelved). O’Reilly also expressed concern over the state of the press in Zimbabwe. Although a sovereign state, Mbeki should use South Africa’s influence on the world stage to positively influence Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to stop the abuse and brutal repression of press freedom there.

I’d like to express my confidence in the future of newspapers in this digital age. I have little time for the pessimists put there… That’s why we have stepped up our marketing in the face of waves on disinformation about the future of our newspaper. We are leading the fightback. Newspapers are still the second largest medium in the world in advertising and readership. The growth in the global newspaper industry continues to grow.

Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, started things off by quipping to Gavin O’Reilly that he would not only get a Christmas card from him, but a present too! (O’Reilly had earlier said he was not getting Christmas cards from some heads of states that he had criticised for clamping down on the media).

Mbeki spoke of the strides South Africa has made in the creation of a sense of national cohesion and pride that is growing in South Africa, unlike the old days of Apartheid which was marked by racial discrimination and xenophobia. The country has also made socio-economic strides in helping the black poor in this country, but we still have a long way to go to finally remove the legacy of Apartheid and colonialism.

The South African constitution is there is protect our essential rights on which our democratic society rests. That includes freedom of expression.

He called on the world media to tell the African story in as much depth and context as possible. He said it is worrying that journalists have been imprisoned in many African countries. He also expressed concern with some laws that prevent journalists from criticising African leaders. He noted that progress had been made with various free press meetings and initiatives around the continent.

Responding to O’Reilly, Mbeki also said that he was also surprised that press freedom was not a criteria in the Nepad peer review process and that he would take this issue up. Mbeki expressed concern that Africa was falling off the world press agenda and that coverage on American newspaper front pages has dropped.

We have seen a negative type-casting of the continent. We have multi-party elections and peer review on the continent. We invite you to the 2010 world cup to see the national progress we have made in this country.

Mbeki referred to bloggers, saying that the media industry is changing. He referred to the term “Goodbye Gutenberg”, to emphasise how the industry was changing in the face of citizen and digital media. Mbeki noted an era where Amazon used to be a river. Yahoo used to be a bumpkin, and Google use to be ones and zeros. How the world has changed since then.

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