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Orwellian evening with Mac Maharaj

Latha Ravjee

Latha Ravjee says those who have not spoken out in disgust against the Protection of State Information Bill should hang their heads in shame.

On the evening of Saturday February 19 the public was invited to a “rare screening” of campaigning journalist John Pilger’s film The War You Don’t See at the offices of the Monty Naicker Commemoration Committee in Durban.

Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj addressed the audience. In his brief talk, he alluded to “the secrecy Bill” in relation to what we were about to see. Little did we ­realise what this seemingly casual comment was to portend as the evening unfolded.

The film is excellent in demonstrating the less benign face of United States armed forces in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq and the effect of the war on civilians. Through the skilful use of authentic ­footage, Pilger encourages the viewer to think critically about media ­coverage. In interviews with reporters, soldiers and academics, he focuses on the role and ­perspective of the journalist as a ­storyteller and his or her sense of morality when reporting on war. Of major concern to Pilger is “embedded journalism”, or journalism “in bed with” state power.

The documentary was undoubtedly highly relevant to South Africa, particularly in relation to the Protection of State Information Bill.

After the screening, Maharaj invited comment. He was quick to point out to the audience that this would not be a debate. He said he was interested to hear “what ­people took with them after viewing the film”. Yet, as soon as comments began to lead towards the secrecy Bill, he curbed them. Maharaj was happy—almost eager—to blame the press for distorting the truth in South Africa. He was quick to silence a member of the audience who was trying to discuss the relationship between misinformation in the media and the government’s desire to curb media freedom—a point powerfully expressed by Pilger and, indeed, the crux of the film.

It is interesting, too, to note the various levels of visual communication that were taking place in the venue. Firstly, the seating area was arranged in the heart of the Monty Naicker photographic exhibition. As one’s eyes drifted during the film and the discussion, they would rest on any number of powerful historical images and iconic moments that capture the spirit of the struggle against apartheid state power. It was a time when freedom fighters were freedom fighters and not money-hungry politicians. Secondly, we were viewing a film that aimed to highlight how information is—and can be—controlled by state power.

But, for me, what was Orwellian was that Maharaj was given centre stage to “direct” the discussion. Here was a man who, ­having been implicated in an ongoing corruption investigation, is trying to muzzle the press with threats of police action and court cases and yet he was leading a discussion on the way the state and the media can come together to distort the truth. This was an insult to the luminaries of the struggle whose images adorn the walls of the committee’s offices. It was an insult to all of us.

The committee and those of us who have not spoken out in disgust should hang our heads in shame.

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