Herman WassermanBy Professor Herman Wasserman
Deputy Head of School and Chair of Highway Africa Steering Committee

The theme of the Highway Africa conference this year is Speaking truth to power? Media, Politics & Accountability.

Trust and credibility are at the center of the relationship between media and society. If the media loses its ability to speak to people in a language they understand, about experiences they recognise and through stories that they believe to be true, the media loses the reason for its existence.

In recent years we have seen how issues of trust and credibility have come under intense scrutiny, not only in South Africa, but internationally.

The Leveson inquiry in the UK has been a stark reminder of how the media can prey on the very public it claims to serve. The phone hacking scandal there violated the rights not only of celebrities, but of ordinary people like the murdered teenager Millie Dowler and her family. The public was outraged because the media failed to ‘comfort the afflicted’.

Here at home we have experienced increased intolerance to the media’s criticism of the powerful, and threats to establish a Media Tribunal and the passing of the Protection of State Information Bill have prompted civil society to remind us all that one of the key roles of the media is also to ‘afflict the comfortable’.

But the media can only claim the moral right to keep the powerful to account when it also turns that critical gaze upon itself. That is why in recent years the review of the South African Press Council and the work of the Press Freedom Commission, as well as that of the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team – as yet uncompleted – has been so important.

We hope that the presentations, workshops and discussions during the conference will remind us of CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour’s words: “Trust and credibility are the commodities we trade in”.

On behalf of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, and the Highway Africa Steering Committee, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Grahamstown and the 17th Highway Africa conference.