Press freedom: Much to celebrate, but the journey is far from over

Whistleblowers: Davide Dormino with his sculpture of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. (Pierre Albouy/Reuters)

Whistleblowers: Davide Dormino with his sculpture of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. (Pierre Albouy/Reuters)

As messages fly off our computers and cellphones by the hundreds of thousands every day, leading us to believe we live in a sophisticated world, let us remember on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, that this is also a backward world: 199 journalists are in jail and 10 have been killed so far this year.

Still, we take freedom of information and expression for granted. As we should, in a democracy.

But while 2016 sees Sweden and Finland celebrate 250 years of their access to information laws, and South Africa celebrates 16 years of its Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) of 2000, most countries in the rest of Africa, the East and South America have never passed such a progressive law.

About 90 countries out of 195 in the world have freedom of information laws, a dismal less than 50%.

This year Unesco marks World Press Freedom Day with the theme freedom of information, tied strongly to freedom of expression, and the safety of journalists all over the world.

Ironically enough, this celebration of freedom of information in many parts of the world comes at a time when democratic states’ (such as that of the United States and the United Kingdom) surveillance overreach is extraordinary as they spy on citizens in zealous attempts to catch terrorists.

In turn, freedom of information has enabled investigative journalists to catch other crooks, including leaders of democratic states, as they put money in offshore accounts to dodge tax in their own countries.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day will be an occasion to remember several big declarations:

• The sustainable development goals, 2030, of the United Nations for freedom of expression and “public access to information and fundamental freedoms”;

• The 250th anniversary of the world’s first freedom of information law, covering modern-day Sweden and Finland; and

• The adoption of the Windhoek Declaration by journalists in 1991 in Namibia – which highlighted the fact that press freedom constitutes media freedom, pluralism and independence. This gave rise to World Press Freedom Day being recognised by the UN.

Some of the issues to be discussed at the Unesco World Press Freedom conference in Helsinki, Finland, this week include:

• Hypersurveillance of states overstepping its mark;

• The safety of journalists, given the number of deaths and disappearances, which continues to rise; and

• Trolling, especially of women and black people.

Each year, the day serves as an occasion around the world to commemorate, celebrate and strengthen freedom of expression and journalists’ roles.

  In South Africa, we have a mixed bag of fortunes: there are no journalists in jail, although at one point, in 2008, Sunday Times investigative journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested for “defeating the ends of justice” while he was uncovering the shenanigans of Mpumalanga politicians.

But there has been a death in our democratic period, which has gone by quietly, perhaps, some say, because the photojournalist hailed from the neglected community media sector.

  In January 2014 a policeman shot dead photojournalist Michael Tsele, who worked for the Kormorant, a North West newspaper.

He had been photographing a broken water pipe during a service delivery protest in the province’s town of Brits. No one is serving time for his death.

Then there are assaults of journalists year after year, especially photojournalists, also by police. The South African National Editors’ Forum has documented this and even jointly drawn up a booklet with the police on the rights of journalists in a democracy such as ours.

Lest we forget, there was also the infamous signal jamming in Parliament in February 2015. Media houses subsequently took the Speaker of the House to court on the matter, on the grounds of censoring the media.

Further, the nefarious Protection of State Information Bill collects dust on the president’s desk, unsigned into law, as it stands. It hangs over the media and the public at large. It has not been signed into law because it appears that the president and the ANC are embarrassed and fearful that it would contravene Paia.

A further stink is the resolution of the ANC from its Polokwane policy conference in 2007 for an investigation of a Media Appeals Tribunal that would ultimately see the press accountable to an ANC majority Parliament rather than being ruled by the co-regulatory regime of the present.

We have a split news media industry. On the one hand, we have the independent bulldog-with-a-bone type of journalism; on the other, we have the lapdog variety, which aligns itself with development journalism conceptions – in other words, protecting the country’s image in a nationalistic patriotic way.

Independent journalism has been a conduit for information for the public’s right to know, especially about the uncovering of serious corruption such as Zuma’s Nkandla home and the Gupta family stories, which could bring about the downfall of a president à la Watergate. Although the press is robust – counting those independent from political party interference – sometimes in its overzealousness it gets misled, falls for tricks, and gets stories wrong.

Now with municipal elections round the corner, this news media space becomes more important than ever. So far, there is disturbing but not surprising news that the public broadcaster, the SABC, is censoring public callers who wish to voice critical views about the ANC. There will be smear campaigns by politicians, who will be looking for journalists to manipulate.

But South Africa’s press freedom matters resound with the same around the world. Journalists continue to have difficulty getting access to data. Requests for information are still ignored, even where there are freedom of information laws in place.

Growing threats of arbitrarily blocking access to online information, limiting or punishing cyber expression and arbitrary intrusions into digital privacy affect people’s access to information, as does the range of information that gets put online, which includes data protection and encryption issues, search engine listing and balancing rights of privacy with public interest rights.

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