The African National Congress, perhaps buoyed by a renewed sense of public confidence in the wake of the World Cup, is, again, moving against one of our fundamental democratic freedoms.
Amidst a new flurry of indignation, paranoid and hysterical in equal measure, various representatives of the ANC have made it quite clear that they consider some of the criticisms of the party and its leaders that have appeared in the media to be unacceptable. This is not the first outbreak of this sort of hostility to press freedom within the ANC but it needs to be taken seriously because it’s backed up with real intent.
The most solid aspect of that intent is the Protection of Public Information Bill, which would allow more than 140 different bodies, from municipal managers up the Minister of State Security, to withhold information. It would also criminalise whistle blowing and effectively give the state the power to stop uncomfortable media investigations. By all accounts the Bill would, if passed into an Act, be unconstitutional and would go the same way as the Slums Act if confronted with a challenge in the Constitutional Court.
To compound the situation the ruling party has returned to its proposal, first put forward in 2007 and then abandoned after huge pressure, for a media tribunal that could, on its own account, result in journalists being imprisoned, fined and fired. As in 2007 statements from the ANC, many of which are patently anti-democratic, are quite clear that their central concern is how the party and its leaders are represented.
The South African Communist Party has supported the call arguing that the Press Ombudsman is inadequate and that the alternative opportunity for redress, the legal system, is not affordable to most South Africans. At least one newspaper editor takes the view that the ombudsman is, indeed, understaffed and underfunded but if this is the case it hardly justifies an inquisition aimed at stemming critique of the ruling party. On the contrary the solution would be to give the ombudsman’s office the support it needs or to propose a better alternative. The SACP’s second point is certainly fair but to point to the class bias of our legal system to justify a call for an inquisition by a ruling party that is actively entrenching inequality is, as the Communist Party often does, to misuse left wing critique of our society to try and legitimate right wing agendas.
Blade Nzimande, himself a recent target of media criticism, has argued that the confession by the former Cape Argus journalist Ashley Smith that he had taken money and privileged access to tenders to report favourably on Ebrahim Rasool indicates the necessity for a media tribunal. But Nzimande says nothing at all about the fact that the ANC has seen fit to give Rasool a prestigious and important diplomatic posting. The SACP is, to its credit, raising the issue of corruption within party structures and in a grassroots campaign that has had impressive moments. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is fundamentally dubious for Nzimande to call for the ANC to arrange for an inquisition into the media on the basis of a case that reveals corruption in both the party and the newsroom of the Cape Argus. Why not a tribunal to look at corruption in the party? To use one case of corruption to besmirch the reputation of the whole of the fourth estate, and to do so in a manner that aligns with the out and out political authoritarianism of someone like Jackson Mthembu and his clear desire to subordinate the media to the party, puts the SACP firmly in the camp of the authoritarian nationalists.
The third component of the ANC’s new strategy towards the media seems to be The New Age, the new newspaper to be published by the Gupta brothers. The paper will be ‘broadly supportive of the ANC’. There’s nothing wrong with a newspaper that aims to be supportive of a particular political party or idea but there is something very wrong when there’s a strong suspicion that the owners of that newspaper are involved in questionable business relations with the President and his family. Is this not potentially something very much like a supersized version of the Ashley Smith and Ebrahim Rasool nexus? Nzimande’s silence on this score is telling.
There is no question that the media is imperfect. Anyone who has been part of a project or event that makes the news will attest to the fact that most reports carry some errors. This is not, at all, a unique failing of the South African media or even of the media in general. A large proportion of the academic articles that deal with current events are also riddled with errors of fact. Governments, human rights organisations and businesses all get it wrong fairly often.
The tendency to error doesn’t have to be explained through the language of conspiracy. While there are better and worse ways of doing things, and while we certainly need to strive for the former, the fact is that some degree of error is inevitable. Error is part of the inevitable messiness of the world and a democratic view needs to understand that and to respond to it by preserving as much openness with which to respond to error as is possible.
Like all of us, journalists make mistakes and carry prejudices, but unlike most of us, journalists have to negotiate their fallibility under tight deadlines and in the public gaze. Around the world the pressures that journalists are under have been greatly exacerbated by newspaper owners that want to wring as much profit as they can out of their businesses with the result that newsrooms are often chronically underfunded. In South Africa journalists also work in a society structured in all kinds of systemic unfairness and in which all kinds of power relations are fundamentally unequal.
But no media tribunal will change any of this. On the contrary if it follows the logic of Jackson Mthembu all it will do is to send a clear message that the state does not consider certain forms of critique to be acceptable.
The ANC is as engaged as any other powerful constituency in society in trying to win the media to its point of view. There are times when it is successful and times when it is not. But it is certainly not just the ANC that gets the short end of the stick from time to time. Some of the poor people’s movements that are at the coalface of building real resistance to the ANC have, on occasion, been subject to entirely scurrilous treatment in the media. In fact popular protest is routinely treated through a prejudicial lens in which poor people are assumed to be irrational, violent, criminal and a threat to bourgeoisie society.
Among the many political clichés that deserve their regular repetition is the truism that being elected into power doesn’t make one a democrat. It’s equally important, given the legalistic nature of some of the responses to the ANC’s return to outright hostility to a free press, to repeat the point that a narrow and legalistic adherence to the letter of democratic obligations is hardly a meaningful fidelity to their spirit.
On the contrary a real fidelity to the spirit of democracy requires a genuine commitment to diffuse power and to engender multiple sites of power. If the ANC was committed to the democratisation of society it would be working to democratise the media by legislating for real diversity, generous subsidies for autonomous community media and serious state support for genuinely public broadcasting. What they are doing, instead, is trying to bully the media into submission to an increasingly authoritarian and conservative regime.
A Move To Constructive Contribution
Let us start implementing the alternatives we - part of the media, social movements and intellectuals – have so far suggested and not wait until the "proposed return to apartheid-era censorship"“ starts taking shape at all. Similar efforts have brought about optimal conditions and well-balanced, participatory practices elsewhere.
What we are struggling with at the moment, is not new: Addressees of journalistic initiatives – 'the people' - have very often found ways and means to remain informed in spite of from time to time being let down by opportunistic and irrelevant reporting or systematically being intimidated or simply overlooked by political powers that be. Consequently, legislature in a fledging democracy will and can in the first place not but be interested in avoiding the upcoming or continuation of such circumstances. It will logically be interested in facilitating the public to interact effectively by providing adequate means and structures for that purpose. Whether the proposed Bill and Tribunal are the right measure, I doubt.
A legal framework on the one side and a professional code of ethics on the other would be the two corners of a triangle the public is part of and is evolving – in every democratic setup. Let us follow Youngin’s move from “moral outrage“ to constructive contribution - how trivial each endeavour might seem!
Censorship Cannot be Fought with Moral Outrage Alone
The proposed return to apartheid-era censorship has met a largely critical and balanced response on the part of the media, social movements and intellectuals. This is heartening, but I think that we need to realise that the media had already censored itself by not reaching out to the majority poor and, in some cases, stifled its critical role in virtue of its respect for good political relations with government.
What we need now are tactical forward-looking responses, not just a knee-jerk reaction to the proposed Bill and Tribunal. Why haven't we begun our own WikiLeaks project? Why do we continue to publish online or in expensive formats or in inaccessible language? What happened to the mass distribution of pamphlets? What happened to meaningful community radio stations?
Censorship cannot be fought with moral outrage alone.
A Give and Take Relationship
Every free society would value and protect freedom of expression. Various interest groups will very often tend to share this principle only to a limited extent and will try to reverse it, as soon as their particular interests are at stake. The freedom of expression can survive and thrive at best, if the civil society identifies with its media and makes intensive use of it in speaking out and exchanging opinions: Only in such a give-and-take relationship at all levels would a free society maintain and develop its profile and positive dynamics.
Yes, the current media is inadequate - that's why these conglomerates should be broken up and replaced with community media that is not only indepdenent from the State but also from big-businesses and their own biases and interests. Media needs to be biased towards the people.
A Free and Open Society
An inner commitment to a free and open society is an essential characteristic of a genuine democrat. Minimal adherence to laws which support such an inner commitment is better than nothing but ultimately insufficient for the health of democracy