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Media Threats

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Media restrictions spurn democracy

Media bills threatening to restrict press freedom will only stifle the grassroots where media diversity, much needed in South Africa, will have to take root.

I THINK it was Aristotle who said that republics become democracies, and that democracies can become dictatorships. As a South African I’d hate to be so pessimistic. Our nation has suffered too long and worked too hard for us to be left holding a banana as our national symbol.

But I must admit that recent events have shaken my confidence. Our government’s threats to institute a state-controlled Media Tribunal and the ambiguous, but sinister Protection of Information Act, remind me too much of the apartheid era.

These are the cloaks behind which the likes of PW Botha used to hide his professional killers, sanctions busters and illegal arms dealers. These were the veils that the Nationalists used to dance behind whilst the country burned and activists were tortured and detained without trial.

I know that the ANC gets offended when these allusions are made – but what guarantees do we really have? Is the government in a position to do better at “regulating” the media than anyone else?  I doubt it.

The bizarre arrest by the Hawks of Sunday Times journalist, Mzilikazi Wa Afrika, for possessing a set of allegedly “forged” documents, is a case in point. The last time I saw six vehicles and a squad of policemen surrounding a journalist was in 1985 under the State of Emergency.

Wa Afrika’s stage-managed arrest, a blatant act of intimidation if there ever was one, was just enough to rekindle a smidgen of the fear and paranoia that used to reign in those very ugly days.

I’m a working journalist. I’m what you call a hack, or a media journeyman. My experience at grassroots in the newsroom is that most South African MP’s, most public officials and even some of our Cabinet Ministers, have little idea of the media.  The soap-opera of woes we’ve seen at the SABC is an eloquent enough example of their media skills.

The truth is that the Media Tribunal and the Protection of Information Act boil down to manufactured fear, which is a convenient tool to execute a political agenda of silencing uncomfortable criticism. That – whether government likes it or not – is exactly what the Tribunal and the Act imply, despite the sweet non-seqetuir of government spin doctors.

The point is that restrictions on the South African media will affect everybody, not just those of us in the newsrooms. And having been fortunate enough to have covered stories in the Middle East, the Far East, Europe, Africa and the US, I can vouch that freedom of speech and press freedom are absolute integrals to any successful democracy.

In every country I’ve been to, the media has been a mirror of that society. And wherever the press has bent to government, there’s been a strangulation of freedom of speech – and a despot in power who physically threatens or imprisons his journalists.  

Much of the political schizophrenia, religious extremism and conspiracy theory that exists in the 21st century emanates from communities festering with frustration at a lack of basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is an outlet, like the valve on a pressure cooker. Block it and the lid blows.

It’s freedom, and not necessarily the vote, that sustains the spirit of the ordinary citizen. Freedom of expression gives voice and hope. It’s the freedom to create, to protest, to expose injustice and to cry out in pain that keeps a society ticking – not media bills. Media bills don’t solve problems, they merely hide them away.

That is why a free press is so vital to the make-up of South Africa, a country of diversity and difference, but facing daunting challenges. A free press, unrestricted by government ordinance or censorship on critical issues in such testing times, is a non-negotiable.

A free press holds not only government, but also the private sector and errant citizens in check. A free press, whilst not being a praise singing exercise, also extols the virtues of a society. It contributes towards nation-building by not being fawning, but by being constructively and fearlessly critical.

Of course I would be arrogant, if not naïve, if I said that the media was a perfect institution. We do make mistakes, and we do have our own challenges – such as shrinking budgets, rogue reporters and overwhelming information overload. But if we make a mistake, it is equally our responsibility to set matters straight, as it is to expose the truth.

A growing phenomenon today is that younger journalists see the media merely as a job. The Iraqi journalist, Zuhair al-Jezairy, complains that reporters no longer come into the newsroom through the door of literature and culture.

Their basic material, he says, is the simple story devoid of political understanding or historical background. Technical skills such as how to build a sentence, or structure a story or feature are also lacking. Talk to any news editor in South Africa today, and I bet they will have the same observation.

The other problem – and here I agree with the ANC – is that our country does need more media diversity. Space does not allow us to outline how it could be more widely defined, but suffice it to say that it’s not a question of current monopolies. It’s more a case of creating more opportunities, and using the space that is already available.

Media bills restricting press freedom will only stifle the grassroots where media diversity will have to take root. If our life becomes governed by ambiguous and all-embracing media restrictions, those precious roots will simply die.

Therefore, the Media Tribunal and Protection of Information Act must be consigned to the dirt-bin. There is too much at stake. We starve ourselves of freedom of expression at our own peril.

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