From the ashes of democracy, tyranny rises

When opposing voices are silenced and the independent press is co-opted not so much by the state as by a backroom elite, then writing is no longer on the wall. It's on the gravestone. (David Harrison, M&G)

When opposing voices are silenced and the independent press is co-opted not so much by the state as by a backroom elite, then writing is no longer on the wall. It's on the gravestone. (David Harrison, M&G)

After an explosive scandal regarding a president spending millions to renovate his mansion, the once popular leader is feeling the heat and is now turning his country into a witch-hunting securocracy.

At the heart of his troubles are the so-called “spy tapes”, which reveal the enormity of his criminal activities, his ruthless efforts to defeat the ends of justice, and the extent to which he is prepared to compromise the country’s criminal justice system to protect himself and his family. 

Last year he extended his term after a vicious election campaign that was characterised by the opposition accusing him of buttressing his power under the pretext of national security.

He is seemingly emboldened by the absence of a strong, viable opposition and the fact that his is still a relatively solid but shaky democracy in a volatile region.

In the world of duplicitous foreign policy, he is still regarded as a necessary evil but at home he is becoming the prime evil. His corruption and weak, divisive leadership are turning a once-promising regional power into a failing state. The opposition accuses him of using taxpayers’ money for his avaricious personal lifestyle, symbolised by the state’s exorbitant renovations to his palace.

This month a brawl broke out in Parliament as the opposition tried to thwart what they describe as the president and the ruling party’s attempt to turn the country into a security state.
He is about to sign a secrecy Bill reminiscent of the country’s emergency laws under the past dictatorship.

According to the opposition, the Bill – which has sparked local and international condemnation – will strengthen the president’s hold on power by means of brutal force and the crushing of any dissent, especially in the face of mounting public protests.

He is accused of using security institutions for political ends and reintroducing a venomous atmosphere of fear, mistrust, suspicion and anger, an atmosphere last experienced during the rule of the previous, repressive regime.

He has surrounded himself with sycophantic parliamentarians and unctuous party officials who are prepared to do anything to protect his corrupt desires. Others who ride on his corruption and popularity wave are the state media.

A journalism professor observed that a new breed of greedy media baron with political connections is capturing mainstream media outlets. They use these media companies as allegiance tokens to win multibillion state contracts. They thrive through government advertising that is corruptly channelled to their editorially moribund newspapers and dreary TV channels.

One unprofitable media house, according to the journalism professor, was bought with funding from a state institution. And, despite a barrage of questions about the true nature of the transaction, this was never disclosed.

An independent pollster has revealed that, whereas government departments continue to drench these loyal media with advertising spend, most readers – including many who vote for the governing party – shun these discredited media. Their journalists have become praise singers for the party in power and, according to an independent journalist, are a disgrace to the profession.

The independent journalist said the job of these izimbongi (praise singers) is primarily to justify the doings of the ruling party and the president’s unlawful actions.

The critical independent press is facing a massive political and commercial onslaught. State departments and most private companies refuse to advertise. Independent journalists endure insults, harassment, threats and accusations of all forms of treasonous acts.

A senior editor aptly summed it up: “When power is threatened and corruption is exposed, the independent media feel the heat.”

Interestingly, most of these independent journalists admitted, embarrassingly so, that they voted and used to support this president and his ruling party.

One can be excused for thinking that this is the depressing story of South Africa today. But it is the sad tale of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Listening to Turkish independent journalists, researchers, academics and pressure groups last week, we (a delegation of South African journalists, members of civil society groups and academics) were stunned and disturbed by the sharp parallels and similarities between Turkey’s and South Africa’s stories.

Unfortunately, our host, Turquoise Harmony Institute – which preaches love, tolerance and social cohesion through dialogue and “appreciating the other” – neither invited nor introduced us to any voices loyal to Erdogan. I guess it was not in its interest to do so.

After hearing this gloomy account, some of us tried to find a sense of hope, an internal reassurance that we are not there yet – despite the recent actions in Parliament to curb media freedom and a violent clampdown on the opposition.

At least our editors and proprietors are not in detention (without trial), our courts and media (except for a few loyalists) are still aggressively independent, and our civil society and political opposition vigorously demand accountability.

One of my colleagues told our Turkish counterparts (with qualification, though) that there shall never be a dictatorship in this country because there will always be a pushback. I, however, urge us to maintain aggressive vigilance.

Moshoeshoe Monare is the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian. His trip to Turkey was paid for by the Turquoise Harmony Institute

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