Tracking media freedom: 40 years since Black Wednesday

COMMENT

The state of media freedom in South Africa today is messy and confusing as we mark the 40th anniversary of Black Wednesday, when the apartheid regime unleashed its brutal violence against the press.

On October 19 1977, about a month after Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko was murdered in detention, minister of justice Jimmy Kruger arrested editors and banned The World, Weekend World and the church publication Pro Veritate.

He also banned 19 Black Consciousness organisations: the Black People’s Convention, the South African Students’ Organisation (which Biko founded), the South African Students’ Movement, the National Association of Youth Organisations and its affiliates, the Black Community Programmes, the Medupe Writers’ Association, the Zimele Trust Fund, the Black Women’s Federation, the Union of Black Journalists and the Association for the Educational and Cultural Advancement of the African People of South Africa.

The apartheid regime detained key writers Joe Thloloe, Mathatha Tsedu and Don Mattera, who were tortured in prison and on their release they were slapped with five-year banning orders.

Nothing as violent as this has occurred since 1994. But today, the media is a murky, ambivalent and contested space marred by political interference, commercial imperatives and depleted newsrooms because of retrenchments. The fourth industrial revolution has created a culture of “sharing” and “liking”, as well as the phenomenon of “fake news” — lies, misinformation and propaganda. That’s on the one hand. On the other we have strong investigative journalism making huge inroads into exposing corruption.

We know journalists must be accountable to the public’s right to know the facts about power and abuse because this informs the decisions people make. In tandem with this, journalists could also be activists in a democracy and break free from the shackles of political factions and commercial interests. This would be the ideal. But we are not living in an ideal world.

The dismal aspect of journalism in South Africa today is “captured media” or those journalists who have allowed themselves to be used in the ANC’s battles and then performed smear jobs in front-page stories. No need to name them: they know who they are.

The optimistic aspect of media freedom resides in investigative journalism, which has and is connecting the dots for the public by helping to expose the Zupta saga, including the corrupt behaviour of some employees of such well-known international companies as Bell Pottinger, KPMG and McKinsey.

Media companies are also complicit in the poor state of media freedom, diversity and journalism. Unfortunately, many locally have adopted the developed world trend of “native advertising” — a desperate, hopeless and embarrassing attempt at “innovation” to save newspapers by blurring advertising and editorial. Many editors have said there is no other option. Really? This topic requires a whole article on its own. In addition, the more media companies retrench employees the sorrier the state of journalism becomes.

What about the state, the government and the ruling party?

Police attacks against journalists continue, according to the South African National Editors Forum’s (Sanef) tally. Police don’t understand that photojournalists need to take pictures and so they willy-nilly grab cameras and physically assault journalists. There are incidents every month.

Part of the problem is there are too many places unnecessarily classified as “national key points” — around Parliament, Eskom, post offices and the SABC, for instance.

There was also an attempt to censor reporting from Parliament.

Then we have the Protection of State Information Bill (also called the secrecy Bill), which, if passed, would create a society of fear and secrecy in the name of “national interest”, a situation reminiscent of the Internal Security Amendment Act, 1976. The secrecy Bill directly contradicts the Promotion of Access to Information Act and would be unconstitutional if passed. For this reason the Bill is collecting dust on the president’s desk, apparently.

The secrecy Bill allows for journalists to be jailed for between five to 25 years for passing on “classified” information. It contains an unlikely scenario: should such a document land on a journalist’s desk, they must look at it, reflect on whether this may be classified information and then rush over to the police station and hand it in. Really?

Then we have the resolution taken at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane policy conference for a Media Appeals Tribunal, which would replace the co-regulation system (by the media and the public) of accountability and place it in Parliament’s hands. The ANC says this is not censorship; it’s merely a “post-publication accountability” method.

For media freedom, these proposed laws and policies are worrying.

To complete this dismal picture, a photojournalist was killed in post-apartheid South Africa. In January 2014 police shot Michael Tshele, who worked for the Kormorant and Leseding News newspapers, when he was taking pictures of broken water pipes in Motluhung, Britz, in the North West. The police said he was caught in the crossfire during service delivery protests but residents said a policeman took aim and shot him. The police officer was found guilty.

Back to the positives: Sanef won its interdict against the speaker of the National Assembly for jamming communications at Parliament during President Jacob Zuma’s chaotic State of the Nation address in 2015. The Supreme Court of Appeal ruled, in effect, that censorship has no place in this country. None at all. Forget it, Baleka Mbete.

More good news is a flurry of activities in October by robust civil society organisations — Sanef, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, Media Monitoring Africa, the Freedom of Expression Institute, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Save our SABC, and Right2Know. They are involved in advocacy, debates and panel discussions. This is agency, action with the themes of the fierce protection of media freedom and diversity, freedom of expression and independence from political and commercial interests. We don’t want another Black Wednesday like 1977’s, ever.

Journalists could move closer to advocacy groups to fight for their space in our democracy. It’s wise to give politicians and business a wide berth.

Glenda Daniels is associate professor in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and chair of the ethics and diversity subcommittee of South African National Editors Forum

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