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Brij Maharaj | 19 October 2020 | Daily Maverick
We must zealously guard the freedom of the press that is entrenched in our Constitution and which has repeatedly come under attack by, among others, the EFF and the ANC. When freedom of expression is assured and entrenched, then human rights also thrive, including those of women, minorities and children.
Although newspaper circulation has declined in the electronic age, the print and credible digital media (okay, Daily Maverick take a bow!) remain the key source for original news which is accessed via the internet and re-circulated via social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc).
The opinion pages of newspapers remain a powerful influence for agenda setting and engaging with popular public opinion in an era when the space for democratic debate and dissent is increasingly being restricted globally. Hence, the media can act as a catalyst for galvanising public opinion and action.
Under apartheid, there was rigid media censorship and oppression. On 19 October 1977, the World and Weekend World newspapers were shut down, and journalists and activists were arrested. Media freedom is now entrenched in the South African Constitution: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”
However, as the ANC fails to deliver to the poor and disadvantaged, and the independent press (and investigative media units such as amaBhungane and Scorpio) exposes how hundreds of billions of rands have been squandered through corruption, exacerbating sociospatial inequalities of the apartheid era, some senior ANC officials labelled the media as the “opposition”. Max du Preez tweeted: “Perhaps we should second amaBhungane, Scorpio and other investigative reporters to the Hawks and the NPA for six months to get the politicians’ parade of shame going?”
In March 2019, South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) chairperson Mahlatse Mahlase expressed concern that after 25 years of democracy “it seems we are going backwards and not forwards in terms of the rights of journalists and media freedom. There has been an increase in attacks targeted at journalists… It’s being presented as a battle of ‘the media versus politicians’, but South Africans need to understand that this is an attack on their right, as the public, to know – on our Constitution. Anybody who loves democracy must step in to defend journalists.”
In July 2020, “ANC MP Boy Mamabolo threatened to shoot Sunday World reporter Ngwako Malatji and kick his testicles after the journalist investigated an incident involving the politician and called to get his side of the story – as required by the Press Council’s Code of Conduct”. Sanef responded that “such threats have no place in a democratic society and underline the risks that journalists face when covering the activities of politicians at all levels including branches, regions, and provinces”.
The ANC government is not the guardian of press freedom. The Protection of State Information Bill and the threat to introduce a Media Appeals Tribunal (where the state will be judge, jury and executor) to indict errant journalists and columnists (who presumably do not sing from the state’s hymn sheet) must be unconditionally condemned by all freedom-loving and democratic people.
What are the state secrets that the ANC government wants to hide from the public? Almost all the issues emerging in the Zondo Commission had been reported in the media, which the relevant state agencies such as the captured NPA, chose to ignore. The public would not know about this almost endless list, if it were not for a free press and an unfettered access to information. The press is merely the messenger.
Instead of dealing with the message, the ANC government has threatened to deal with the messenger, naively believing that in an age of instantaneous electronic communication it can restrict the flow of information. Of course, the press is not beyond reproach. Mistakes have been made and these have been corrected via the appropriate structures, independently of state regulation. The involvement of the Sunday Times in the SARS Rogue Unit saga was a low point in post-apartheid journalism.
A 2017 ANC discussion document contended: “Media is a site of struggle. It must be regarded as robust and potentially hostile or at least critical, taking a position against the ANC.” ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, in April 2019, called eNCA journalist Samkele Maseko an “arrogant… bully… thinking he was the lord of the media … and you want to defend freedom of speech you never fought for. And you don’t defend freedom of speech, because your particular TV station has decided the direction it will go on.”
There have been several reports of leaders from the EFF attacking female journalists. The most well-known case would be Julius Malema publishing Karima Brown’s cellphone number on Twitter and she received rape and death threats. eNCA journalist Nobesuthu Hejana was manhandled by EFF male supporters on 8 September 2020. EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi tweeted: “Merely touching her is not harassment. The touch has to be violent, invasive, or harmful to become harassment!”
Journalist Qaanitah Hunter lamented: “The consequence of this hostility to the media is self-censorship – and I think that is the biggest problem facing young journalists. You don’t want to wake up to the bots and trolls and the politicians singling you out, or being banned from events… you don’t want to deal with that. So what do you do? You stay away from the big stories, or you hunt with the mob. If everyone is hunting there, you stick with them instead of doing things that others aren’t focusing on – the investigative work.”
Against this background, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appreciation for critical journalism and media coverage during the Covid-19 lockdown is noteworthy: “We owe a debt of gratitude to South Africa’s hardworking and tenacious journalists. They have kept our people informed by disseminating key health messages about social distancing and hygiene… They have fulfilled their watchdog role by unearthing acts of corruption and maladministration, sparking a massive national debate and leading to a number of high-profile investigations.
“Through this reporting they have earned people’s trust… The free press was once described as ‘the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men and women prize’.”
Nelson Mandela had similarly argued that: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy… It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.”
Media freedom is a foundation of democracy, and is associated with transparency and public accountability, and contributes to sociopolitical stability. When freedom of expression is assured and entrenched, then human rights also thrive, including those of women, minorities and children. As the United Nations Development Programme has emphasised, the “links between democracy, free media and development have been well documented… the more freedom the media have, the greater the control over corruption and the greater focus of resources on priority development issues”.
The free media must “speak truth to power” and increase political awareness among citizens, especially about the misappropriation of resources. Axiomatically, when media freedom is restricted, public accountability decreases, and oppression, corruption and socioeconomic inequalities increase.
Related story: Why journalism matters. The challenges have changed, but has its core purpose?; Making news: South African media industry reflects on the road ahead; New threats to media freedom come from unexpected directions
Related video (in tigrinja): “ነቶም ወትሃደራት፡ ተማሃሮ ዪኒቨርሲቲ፡ ከሚካል ሰሪሖም ከጥፍእኹም ይኽእሉ እዮም፡ ኢሎም ኣጠንቒቖሞም ነሮም” Interview with Abraham T. Zere; A dictatorship in which the media have no rights