Media Freedom Is Your Freedom (Or Is It?)

By Jane Duncan · 2 Sep 2010

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Fresh Conservative
Picture: Fresh Conservative

On Wednesday the 4th of August, Sunday Times reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested at the offices of the Sunday Times newspaper, in response to a complaint laid by the Premier of Mpumalanga province, David Mabuza. Many aspects of wa Afrika’s arrest have raised troubling questions about the appropriateness of the state’s actions, and have fuelled speculation that political pressure was brought to bear on the police to act against wa Afrika for his activities as a journalist.

Wa Afrika’s account of his arrest is chilling. What concerned him the most was the fact that he was taken to Mpumalanga to appear in court, which led him to fear that he was going to be killed. His fears were well founded, as wa Afrika and Mail and Guardian journalist Lucky Sindane were on a hit list of people targeted for assassination, and two government officials on the list had already been killed.

These events have reinforced already-deep concerns about the state of freedom of expression in South Africa. But there are those who are unsurprised by these events. Many small town political activists are all too familiar with the treatment wa Afrika was subjected to. These activists are rich repositories of information about small town repression, and the true state of South Africa’s democracy more generally.

Yet their experiences remain largely unexamined and their insights untapped, owing to the news media’s bias towards news in the major urban centres. As a result, abuses of power in outlying areas often fall under the radar, emerging into public view only when they impinge on events in these news centres.

Activist Seun Mogotji’s sympathises with wa Afrika. In responding to the journalist’s account of his arrest, he said, “I am a victim of that. This is becoming a police state. If the government must be criticised, they must be criticised within the framework of the government. Illiterate people are being brainwashed.” He related his own story.

Mogotji is local secretary of the SACP in Moutse and spokesperson for the Moutse Demarcation Forum. Mogotji has become the voice of the struggle to resist the imposed incorporation of the area into Limpopo.

The SACP in Moutse has alleged a spate of assaults, cases of intimidation, harassment and wrongful arrests ‘aimed at members of the community who hold different political views than those of police officials’. Mogotji has been arrested several times for incitement to public violence and public violence, but these cases have been dropped. He claims that he has been declined bail for no good reason. In Mogotji’s words, “the police punish before they prosecute.”

In one incident, a comrade of Mogotji’s was arrested with him, simply for “driving with Seun.”  In another incident, he says that a senior police officer told him, “they will make sure I lose my mouth if I don’t shut it.” In yet another incident, he describes how a large contingent of police came to arrest him at his place of work, cordoning off the whole building: as Mogotji commented “they wanted it to be like a movie, like wa Afrika’s arrest.”

Mogotji feels that the police have become even more authoritarian under the Jacob Zuma administration; he said, “Things are worse under Zuma. I am even missing (former President Thabo) Mbeki.” He attributes this growing authoritarianism to the Minister of Police Nathi Mthetwa and Deputy Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula's ANC Youth League backgrounds. Given the League’s hostility to the SACP - culminating in its leader Julius Malema recently declaring “war” on the SACP and threatening to “beat the dog (SACP) until the owner (Secretary General Blade Nzimande) comes out” – Mogotji is not surprised that communists are bearing the brunt of the police’s wrath.

Mogotji feels that small town repression is largely unreported, and attributes this to the shallow “telephone journalism” practiced by many newsrooms. Furthermore, their lack of interest in small town politics makes them reluctant to invest scarce investigative resources to dig deeper. In spite of these shortcomings, Mogotji feels that the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal will not enhance the quality of journalism as it is designed “to make sure that the people shut their mouths.”

Sam Radebe from the Greater Harrismith Socio-economic Development Forum was also not surprised by wa Afrika’s account of events, given his own long history of conflict with the police, which he related. In 2004, he was part of the service delivery march that led to the fatal shooting of 17-year-old, Tebogo Mkhonza, and that ignited the province in protest action. He and 13 others were charged with public violence and the apartheid-era crime of sedition, simply for having participated in the march, but they were found not guilty.

In October 2009, the community organised a march against poor service delivery, after having notified the municipality of their intention to do so, as required by law. A huge contingent of police was bussed in from neighbouring towns. According to Radebe, “on the day of the march, there was a lot of interference from the ANC and the government asking them not to march.” As the march was about to start, the police officer in charge told the convenor that he had received an instruction from the MEC for Safety and Security in the province that the march should disperse in two minutes. The protestors refused, arguing that their march was legal.

While the German public broadcaster ARD was conducting a live interview with the public relations officer of the Forum, the police arrested him and other protestors and started beating those arrested. The protestors then became angry and started to riot in a fit of collective anger that spread throughout the township. The ANC offices were burnt down and two ANC councillors were attacked.

This account of events reinforces a key finding of rapid response research into recent protests undertaken by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Sociological Research, that brutal responses by the police contribute to violence in protests, rather than the protestors being solely responsible.

In April, Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza told a press conference the following, “On a daily basis, on a weekly basis I receive reports: intelligence reports with classified information. The reports tell me about your activities [and] about ordinary people doing things...In the service delivery protests, they report who is who.”

These words ring in the ears as Radebe recounts how he is followed everywhere by men in plain clothes; a constant feature of his life since the National Intelligence Agency was dispatched to investigate the 2004 protests.

He has also experienced informal repression. In December 2009, he attended a media conference in Upington organised by the Amandla magazine and the National Community Radio Forum. While at the conference, he was phoned constantly and threatened with legal cases “that will see you locked up for fifteen years” by people who identified themselves only as the “law enforcers.”

After returning to Harrismith, Radebe was attacked by four men while walking home, beaten, and threatened with a gun by a man who said, “you are the one who thinks he knows better about the struggle.” He has opened cases, but these cases go nowhere, while the public violence cases against his comrades move with speed through the system.

Radebe is not happy about the news media’s silence on the threats to activists. While Radebe opposes the establishment of the Media Appeals Tribunal, and is mobilising locally in support of media freedom, he argues, “the media must clean its own house, because they do not consider stories from these small towns to be important. There are so many unreported incidents taking place in towns like Harrismith and Warden and the media must dedicate themselves to the lives of the poor. People are being exploited by the police, but the media don’t report on those things. If there is rioting, [only] then they will entertain it.”

Mogotji and Radebe's stories point to growing state authoritarianism and informal repression. Many, many similar stories remain unreported. They are aware of the possible consequences of telling their stories. But have decided that – in the long run - staying silent is more dangerous than speaking out, as sunlight is the best disinfectant against the rot that is setting in.

The relationship between formal and informal repression is ill understood. But in the absence of hard evidence of a relationship, what can be said is that the failure to deal with formal repression creates the space for informal repression to take root, as a climate of impunity prevails.

Small towns are particularly susceptible to this rot as economic opportunities are few. Local elites can use their control of what few resources exist to dispense political favours and punish political dissidents. Mpumalanga is the most extreme expression of this rot, but there is no reason to believe that the rot will stop there.

To the extent that the news media have failed to report on the de-democratisation of small towns, they are failing the South African public and even themselves. This failure caught up with them on Wednesday the 4th of August.

The media are now appealing to the South African public to support their freedom, re-invoking the South African National Editor's Forum (SANEF) slogan that “media freedom is your freedom.” According to SANEF, “media freedom guarantees your right to know what's going on in your country, and participate fully in the decisions affecting you.”

Activists were among the first to respond to this call, when civil society organisations and social movements released a statement condemning the arrest of wa Afrika. Among the spokespeople were Ashraf Cassiem, whose front teeth were kicked in while resisting an eviction, and Maureen Mnisi, veteran of many arrests and assaults for her activism in the shacks of Protea South.

These activists have proved themselves capable of rising above their reservations about the media's sincerity in professing that media freedom is, in fact, everyone's freedom. They have defended the broader principle of freedom of expression, and media freedom as an instance of that freedom.

In being called on to defend this broader freedom that has been so badly eroded on their watch, will the media finally do the same?

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


Rory Short
3 Sep

Media Freedom

This information whilst horrifying is not surprising to myself who lived through the rise and fall of Apartheid. Politics has enormous attraction for those who want to be able to direct community resources to serve their own rather than the public's interests and they will act ruthlessly to retain this power once they attain it.

Respond to this comment

6 Sep


Thank you for a fine and informative article.

I receive regular emails from the National Tax Payers Union (NTU) giving me up-to-date very reliable information on what is happening on that front - the kind of information one would also not get too frequently in the print media. What amazed me about the NTU was the speed they were able to organize themselves. It was a matter of a month or three and they succeeded in forming a support and information network reflecting the activities of over 200 municipalities.

My question is this: could a similar information network not be formed regarding the activists mentioned in your article, using the same informal means, the humble email, perhaps in conjunction and in collaboration with a website such as this one?

I know that poor people do not have such ready access to the internet, but they can Tweet, and these days, cellphones with Internet connectivity as becoming rapidly cheaper. I believe very soon they will be within reach of the (nearly) poorest of the poor. Perhaps all that is needed is just to facilitate the education of the poor in utilizing this technology.

How about SACSIS forming precisely such an information node?

Respond to this comment

Christof Maletsky
7 Sep

Media Freedom is Your Freedom

When you probe some of those in power now, they will always tell you that they were journalists at some stage of their life.
Also, they will tell you that they know the trade and how it can contribute to development in the country.
What they won't admit is that they used the media to get where they are (in power) and expect the media to keep them in power through praise-singing.
Isn't it of concern that many of the journalists they are arresting, harassing and spying on today where, in fact, on the receiving end prior to the demise of apartheid!
Even with such adversity, the media should continue to tell it like it is.

Respond to this comment

14 Sep

Empower More Voices

The stories related above are a real eye opener and is very worrisome. It is troubling that this is not covered by the media.


Respond to this comment

13 Oct


Someone has already said that "When you probe some of those in power now, they will always tell you that they were journalists at some stage of their life".

or that "Also, they will tell you that they know the trade and how it can contribute to development in the country".

What they won't admit is that they used the media to get where they are (in power) and expect the media to keep them in power through praise-singing.

"Isn't it of concern that many of the journalists they are arresting, harassing and spying on today were, in fact, on the receiving end prior to the demise of apartheid!"

"Even with such adversity, the media should continue to tell it like it is."

Now I say that we have to be aware that Corruption like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder it is not an exclusive character of ex journalists who might have joined Government because some activists by virtue of the racist Apartheid history will be occupying spaces that those who work for Government can not occupy because they are lacking in certain skills or experience that inspite of the number of years they have had as activists they still do not qualify to teach anyone within the approved institutions of learning and teaching. What do you call all this? Is it not corruption too?

Respond to this comment