If the point of journalism is to “speak truth to power”, the month of October reconfirmed the purpose of South African media. Expressions of surprise at the candour of certain editorial pieces (implying frankness is not something we’re used to?) were rife across the industry, followed closely by guesses as to what the eventual consequences might be. Kicking it all off was the last line of an editorial in the Sunday Times, the week of Brett Kebble’s death, which read: “So today we say farewell to the Great Corrupter. May no more like you be born.”
The link between that sentiment – which encapsulated some, though not all, of the coverage – and Essop Pahad’s condemnation of media’s general disrespect for Kebble’s family, articulated in his address at the funeral, was not difficult to establish. A comeback from Jovial Rantao, writing in The Star, included the following: “—here is a senior cabinet minister in the democratic republic of South Africa saying things that skirt on the verge of stuff that dictators do best – violating press freedom.”
Pahad’s counter-response that “such remarks, in the South African context, are ridiculously far-fetched” may hold water for the moment, but only just – threats to press freedom have been coming thick and fast of late, not the least of which is the resurrection of section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act in a seemingly blatant attempt to force the Mail & Guardian to reveal its sources on Oilgate (see pages 47 and 49).
Then there’s the Convergence Bill – or the Electronic Communications Bill, as it’s now known – which together with its twin the Icasa Amendment Bill seeks to remove the “Independent” from the regulator’s official name and place the appointment of councillors in the hands of the executive (see page 9).
Given the context, Sunday Times deputy editor Ray Hartley’s blunt assessment of what a Zuma presidency will look like – the article appeared in the newspaper in mid-October, following televised scenes of Mbeki T-shirts being burned – is neither alarmist nor improbable. Methodically outlining how such a scenario would unravel all the gains of the last 11 years, Hartley got on to the press: “The media, that part of it still willing to expose and confront corruption, would find itself operating in a hostile political environment.”
Whether we’re already halfway there is debatable; what can’t be debated is that those mechanisms capable of silencing the press will be used and abused by anyone with the inclination, irrespective of what it says in the Constitution. Standing against them is the truth that South African media can so candidly speak to power and the legitimate expectation that corrupt power – whether it be government or big business – will fall when it does.