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Free speechless

There shall be freedom of expression. For all. Or rather, for all who can afford it. In 10 short years, we’ve become a democracy for the few, for the relatively wealthy. It is those who have resources who may express themselves. And it is they who can curtail the freedom of others to present a counter view.

Every day we are bombarded with messages from companies trying to sell us something. They couch their messages in wonderful creativity, employing some of the most talented people in the country to do so. Nog eish, ja. They buy advertising space in newspapers and magazines, on television, radio and the Internet, in shopping malls, cinemas and on billboards. But, as Justin Nurse discovered, companies don’t like their messages to be challenged. Se-ri-aas! And these companies have the resources to block such views, by tying up those who make them, in lengthy, costly court battles that could potentially ruin their economic base, so that they do not dare to engage in such activities again.

Laugh It Off won a major victory for freedom of expression in the Constitutional Court. But it could only do this with the help of donations, the point being that while the highest court in our land does sterling work in protecting the democratic rights of citizens, many do not have the resources or energy to take the defence of their rights to that level, and simply put up their white flags a lot sooner, leaving the terrain to be dominated by those with resources.

Much has been written about last week’s gagging of the Mail & Guardian by a company and its CEO who had the resources to apply for an interdict against the newspaper, thus preventing the publication of information that would have been in the public’s interest. While we celebrate the principle of freedom of the media in our country, the exercise of that freedom is dependent on resources to fund the investigation, printing and distribution of stories that are important for our democracy. An independent newspaper simply does not have access to the resources that companies (or political parties) have to do its normal work, as well as take on the legal battles to defend the spaces to do this work. Freedom of the media — like freedom of expression is thus circumscribed by the availability of resources so that economic forms of censorship (or self-censorship) may yet come to replace apartheid-style political censorship.

When those who lack resources to buy newspaper ads, to fight legal battles or even to send umpteen, unanswered, letters to the right channels, take to the streets to express their anger, they are ridiculed as pawns of a third force and it is suggested that the spooks be sent in to discover who is behind these protests. The spooks need go no further than the corridors of government buildings and parastatals to discover the cause of the anger; more often than not, it is public servants who don’t know how to serve the public.

Bureaucrats made policies taking away the production budgets of theatres, making them into ”receiving houses”. All this means in reality is that freedom of creative expression is preserved for those with the resources to hire these venues. The National Arts Council, the Lotto and provincial arts councils are supposed to help those with limited resources to produce and distribute their work, but these bodies often prejudice creative expression through bureaucratic regulation and poor administration, with the relatively resourced and the poor suffering alike.

I have been to a number of farewells for cultural attachés of various embassies. On every occasion, there is genuine regret expressed by South African artists at the departure of these individuals who, with relatively little money and no real need to fund local culture, have made a significant difference to the arts and to the professional lives of artists. It is not likely that many of the bureaucrats who run our arts departments or funding bodies will be missed at all.

Every five years we have manifestos, speeches and promises imploring us to vote for one or other party. In the intervening five years, policies are made and decisions are taken that often bear little relation to the manifestos and promises. Perhaps it is time to vote for parties who declare their financial contributors. At least then we’ll know who and what we are really voting for in our democracy for the few, by the few and of the few with resources.

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