The understanding of media freedom and freedom of expression that some South African political party officials and civil servants promulgate ought to alarm us. The post-apartheid era is the first in South Africa’s history where media freedom is built into the fabric of the constitutional architecture: it is specifically named in the Bill of Rights.
This freedom is one of the many that must be guarded carefully, because the kind of society in which it is absent is one many of us barely survived and can still recall with visceral horror. The space in which the government of the day determines not only what may be covered, but how, and by whom, is not one to which any of us who value the gains of post-apartheid South Africa should want to return.
Media freedom is too easily taken for granted: for some in this country of mostly young people, its absence is a remote possibility. For many others, the insistence that journalists play by rules that governors and captains of industry determine is all too familiar.
Those in power, in political parties or in corporations, traditionally prefer pliant media. Social scientist and historian Christopher Merrett warned about this in his book A Culture of Censorship in 1994: “An understanding of the growth of censorship is not simply an historical curiosity [but] part of the inescapable legacy of apartheid which will be carried into the post-apartheid future. Its history and impact mean that it is fundamental to the fabric of South African society, and unless it is understood, and dealt with, its continuing influence will make the attainment of the ideals of a democracy impossible.”
In a democratic society the person holding the press conference does not determine which questions journalists may or may not ask. That sort of script only works in societies where democracy is reduced to a puppet show and totalitarian rulers are pulling the strings
Those who have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) know this only too well: “If all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’, ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ […] ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.”
Politicians who hold media briefings must learn that they cannot determine which questions are asked; they can only do as many of them already do quite well, which is to choose which questions not to answer. An official or organisation has several legal ways of challenging journalists on their conduct or coverage. There is the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, the press ombud, and even the undesirable route of appeals to the courts can be used should there be an issue of libel. Ugly, threatening berating of a journalist debases all of us.
The habit of singling out individual journalists for public scolding has a dread-inducing, Trumpian tinge about it. This, of course, must be resisted and condemned, regardless of which party or official does it. It is clearly meant to intimidate.
Think of the provincial premier and former leader of the official opposition hectoring journalists about how to ask questions, both in person as well as on social media platforms. Think of the former president of the governing party’s youth league (now the leader of the third-largest party in Parliament) in his response to a foreign correspondent during a media briefing a few years back.
Casting oneself as a private citizen when you’re holding a media briefing as a party official or government employee is a strange, self-contradictory and possibly disingenuous or ignorant gesture. Any private citizen holding a media briefing on politics should try this and see what public interest their individual, private views would have.
Using an official position of authority or power in an organisation to claim the public’s attention, then claiming ordinariness when challenged, is a gesture one former head of state claimed often enough for us to have worked out that it is a deflection tactic against the substantive arguments of critics. It is at best dissimulation.
Suggesting that younger South Africans or anyone defined as an “outsider” may not legitimately insist on their rights because they did not fight for them is unacceptable.In a recent example a provincial MEC singled out “Indian” and “white” people (her words); she was not the only one to use the old Population Registration Act of 1950 categories to try to discipline critics or opponents in the post-apartheid dispensation. To suggest that people or groups thus defined have diminished rights is an alarming distortion of constitutional democracy. Such exclusionary gestures violate the inalienable guarantees in the Bill of Rights, which declares that no one should be unfairly discriminated against on the basis of age, sex, gender, language, culture or religion, among others.
Perhaps we must all remind ourselves that we are marking a quarter of a century of our post-apartheid struggle to make and grow and entrench the democratic constitutional order in the Republic of South Africa. Lest we forget, the impulse toward totalitarian control begins with redefinitions and revisions which require doublethink and Newspeak. We must resist Orwellian redefinitions of the basic terms of our freedom, even from those who fought and sacrificed for the attainment of that freedom.
Defending the principles of freedom (of the media, of expression, of association) compels us to defend the rights of those with whom we disagree, whether they are journalists reporting on the world, or supporters of political parties not our own whose beliefs and actions do not endanger us. History is rife with the horrific consequences of only defending folks you agree with.
Martin Niemöller, the Protestant minister who survived the Nazi death camps, suggested one must speak up when the freedoms of others are under siege precisely because when the jackboots come for you, there may be no one left to speak up for you.
What Toni Morrison says of imperilled writers applies to all who make meaning in public: “The life and work of [those] facing peril must be protected … the choking off of [such] work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves.”
It matters not what colour the party official dons, what post the public servant holds, what rank or what elevated position. We must remind all political parties and their deployed members in government that we as citizens owe them nothing. On the contrary, they owe us an account, if, as they profess, they value democracy. They owe us good governance, and that is what we, as critically literate citizens, must demand of them.
Also, any party or official who suggests that someone too young to have fought against apartheid’s depredations as they did is less worthy of offering criticism in this country with a majority of young people may want to think about their organisation’s electoral future.
Timothy Snyder, in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), reminds us why valuing media freedom is in our own interest: “Before you deride ‘mainstream media’, note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult.”
Merrett quotes a South African journalist from the 1990s, Phillip van Niekerk, who wondered whether “the deficiencies of the press [will] prove the weak link in a democratic South Africa”. Many supporters of the politicians in conflict with journalists point to the quality of the journalism as an explanation and justification for the conduct of the politicians. This is indeed dangerous. Support for the principle of media freedom must commit to protecting the rights of even the weak and feeble, if such they are deemed to be, to practise their profession.
Politicians the world over, not only here, and not only now, would prefer not to have to account to the people. The fourth estate, however imperfect, remains an essential component of our ideal of democratic governance and accountability. Until we can improve it, imperfect but unfettered journalism is better than unfree journalism enthralled to the power and interests of political parties, government or corporations.
A luta continua!
Angelo Fick is the director of research at the Auwal Socioeconomic Research Institute