Press freedom: From daylight to nightmare?

Pinch me, somebody! Are the unprecedented protests by newspaper editors unnecessary hysteria? Is the press watchdog crying wolf?

How could relationships crash so quickly from the “Team South Africa” ethos of the World Cup?

Earlier this year, City Press newspaper discerned — in regard to the threats by Julius Malema and his bullyboys — that journalism in this country is not for sissies.

But when the same paper stood its ground and exposed Malema as a liar, and when the ANC itself reprimanded the proto-fascist for BBC-bashing, the bad stuff seemed to have been a temporary cloud darkening the sky.

Instead, things really seem to have become much worse for press freedom. Daylight has been replaced by twilight.

Few of us foresaw that things would come to this, but let us not fail now to predict what lies ahead if the current course continues unchecked.

There’s a trajectory here. A month ago, it is unlikely that Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika would have been subjected to police abuse. That it happened last week was made possible by the climate of press bashing that has been created.

There may not be a consciously choreographed link between the draconian Protection of Information Bill, the revival of the ANC Media Tribunal, and the shameful treatment of Wa Afrika.

But the political rhetoric against the press can only have served to tell official hoodlums that it’s open day against journalists (let alone the rest of the populace). As a result, they showed no compunction about sending eight officers to arrest a journalist as if he was a gangster armed with an AK47.

More, they searched his house sans warrant. Just like under apartheid, they kept his whereabouts secret, interrogated him at 2.30am, and re-arrested him the instant the charges were dropped.

You would be right if you wince when reading this, because these violations are what really happened last week in pure contempt of our hard-fought-for democracy and the human rights culture we are trying to build.

The police perpetrators have acted with apparent impunity, and the reason is that their conduct was legitimised in advance by political people who should have known better than to start attacking press freedom.

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d say there must be a third force at work, aiming to destroy the spirit of the World Cup, including the country’s new rosy international image. It just cannot be simple ineptitude or aberrant activity that explains the triple combo of the Information Bill, the ANC Tribunal and Wa Afrika’s arrest.

Less conspiratorially, though, it’s likely that rather than there being a co-ordinated campaign to straitjacket journalists, it’s more likely that there’s a dumb dynamic of scape-goatism at work.

Simply, the logic is where the political leadership is misguidedly trying to shore up its future by fomenting anger against someone other than itself. Blind to their own shortcomings, they are instead casting around in search of a new enemy for society to blame.

Though our rulers are responsible for addressing the post-Cup expectations of the masses, it’s patently easier to divert culpability to an institution external to themselves. And who better to pick on than the press — an agency that is not only a severe irritant with its exposés, but is also vulnerable because it is not always perfect.

Idealistically, one might have dreamed that the ANC would have concentrated on the real threats to achieving its proclaimed objectives of a better society, i.e. corruption, unfettered inequality, poverty and HIV.

One might also have hoped that it was absolutely obvious to everyone that journalism is an ally against these particular enemies. Relations between state and media could then have points of common purpose.

Patently, all this was not to be. Instead, the current attack is understandably converting journalists into opponents of the ruling party.

Meanwhile, the whole pressure on the press is happening because some of the people in power are operating with short-term thinking that inclines towards illusory insurance.

For them, alienating the press is not seen as wrong, nor even a loss. They see themselves waging a popular fight with journalists and thereby distracting public attention from who should address the truly serious problems of this society.

And, in the medium-term, if these forces make media accountable to their narrow interests, they expect to benefit further by having doused the spotlights that might otherwise be focused upon them.

Yet have they considered what happens in the longer-term, when we all live in darkness? I invite them to join me in predicting what will happen if, in two years time, critical journalism has been killed off:

  • First, press freedom will be history, but South Africa’s problems will still be there – and the ANC won’t have any credible media to salute successes or to bring corruption to light.
  • Second, the cost of suppression will be well-deserved international opprobrium and the destruction of the country’s image as a leader in African democracy.
  • Third, the coming succession battle will be even dirtier than before for the reason that it will be fought in the shadows rather than in the open.
  • Finally, the culture of curbing criticism will begin to consume even those who today are constructing it.

Considering that scenario, it’s not me who needs to be pinched. It’s the political elite that needs awakening if South Africa is to avoid an inexorable path towards a nightmare.

* This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author. Disclosure: the author is head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University which hosted the WJEC.

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