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Red flags of authoritarian creep

I got a call from a journalist who works for Al Jazeera. He wanted to get my opinion on perceptions that media freedom had been encroached upon more often in South Africa in the past six months or so than previously was the case.

The conversation was very productive and raised several issues that are worth ventilating fully. First, it is very hard to distinguish personal narratives and anecdote from objective reality.

Or, rather, I should be more precise. Personal experiences and anecdotal evidence are parts of objective reality. Nevertheless, one’s personal experiences can seem to be the experiences of everyone else and yet that conviction, once good aggregate data are collected, collated and critically examined, could turn out to be not the case.

So I am hesitant to opine without any fear of contradiction that media freedom has been trampled on more often in recent times than previously.

At the same time, however, it is certainly worrying that we have seen several public incidents of brazen attacks on journalists in South Africa in recent times. All violations of the right to free speech, and media freedom, are dangerous, unacceptable and bad for democracy.

That is obviously not to say that the content of someone’s journalism cannot be critiqued on the basis of factual inaccuracies, gross and unjustified biases when it masquerades as not being subjective and so forth. Speech rights are not absolute. The very point of speech rights is precisely that the public sphere, into which the work of journalists flows, is subject to the rough and tumble of contestation.

The intimidation and harassment of journalists, however, do not constitute legitimate forms of contestation. If I want to centre identity politics in my broadcasting, I should not fear that doing so will invite the threat of assault.

If a columnist wants to pretend that class analysis displaces race-based analysis (or that the dichotomy between class and race is not a false one), then they should be allowed to punt their nonsense without fear of someone violating their right to privacy or a fear that their property rights will be trampled on.

Still, while cautioning against the hasty extrapolation from the personal to the global, I nevertheless had to honestly tell this journalist that it is indeed my sense, and those of peers of mine in the media, that the space for doing our work without watching over our shoulders, is a shrinking space.

A few contextual realities worsen the situation. Our journalism divides the public and so the public does not hastily run to our defence.

If you do not like the work of Piet Rampedi, you may love it if he is intimidated to a point where he self-censors or resigns from a media platform.

If you do not love the work of Peter Bruce, you may gloat if he goes increasingly silent after years of strident commenting. If you do not like the investigative journalism of Sipho Masondo, you may be happy if, tomorrow, he is suddenly no longer a journalist but putting together glossy magazines for some new employer.

I am afraid, however, that this is a horribly imprudent way of looking at the attacks on journalists you may not like. The encroachment on media freedom has a direct consequence for your own life as a citizen.

Even if you do not care about the workplace safety of journalists — although you should if you are committed to the rule of law as a democrat — you should care about the connection between reduced media freedom and a weaker democracy. Journalists who are scared of doing an honest day’s work are journalists who will quickly self-censor. Self-censorship is the beginning of a lid being placed over information that you need to know what goes on in the state, business, civil society and society at large.

In turn, if you have less or flawed information about the world around you, or sheer propaganda dominating the public sphere, then you cannot exercise your civil and political rights meaningfully. Facts, truth and honest debate are the lifeblood of a democracy.

Simply and bluntly put, the slide from the harassment of journalists to a worse life for all is an inevitable and quick one.

Which brings me to the most awkward part of the exchange I had with the Al Jazeera journalist — about authoritarian creep. We are, in some ways, still a democracy. But we exhibit all the features of a neocolony. There are political assassinations that we do not focus on adequately. The security cluster is politicised. The state is increasingly securitised. Looting is an unofficial language. State capture is a noxious daily reality.

We now need to be vigilant about a slide from neocolonial tendencies towards the creep of authoritarianism and, thereafter, actual authoritarianism. It is painful to make such an observation.

It is painful because I, like many of you, internalised the myth of South African exceptionalism in the 1990s. It is time to wake up and smell reality. Zimbabwe, too, was exceptional. The creep towards authoritarianism is not sudden. You must watch for red flags.

One of the red flags we are witnessing right now is the attack on the media from those who want to loot without the scrutiny of a free press. Will you choose silence or will you connect the dots and act?

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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