FROM THE BEST OF TIMES TO THE WORST OF TIMES:
‘IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of Hope’.
Charles Dickens’s opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities may be rather hackneyed and we are not living in the age of the French revolution. But some people continue to speak of a “revolutionary” change in South Africa, and in the last few days it seems that some have decided that the press is the big bad wolf of democracy.
Clairvoyants will have to work out why the goodwill and euphoria that enveloped our country and had dramatically made people publicly assert their South Africanness could have so suddenly deteriorated to such an extent that many people I know – some with special affiliation to the ANC – have become sad, angry or discouraged.
It’s now for all who care for our country and wish to retain some of the joie de vivre essential to nation-building to stand and to say: Enough!
The nature of the debate on legal measures to control the press, on the eve of the ANC’s national congress in September, has cast ominous shadows on the political landscape. It’s not sensationalist to say that within four weeks we have moved from the “best of times” to the “worst of times”.
It has been a personal catastrophe for me. My commitment to the ANC had never wavered as I believed that only the ANC could be the instrument for advocating, supporting and building those wonderful steps that took us to 27 April 1994.
Nothing that the ANC has done in the past two years can betray the nobility of the words of Albie Sachs, which were uttered in the context of culture but which apply equally to Government. He asserted that in our vividly multi-cultural society the ANC should not be seen as the only voice in the anti-apartheid struggle or the only voice in post-apartheid South Africa.
In this debate, which the President has now requested should begin and told us that there are no holy cows, Sachs’ words, uttered nearly 20 years ago, resound as a clarion call to all of us: “… we exercise true leadership by being nonhegemonic” and, as he went on to say, by showing people that we are fighting not to impose a view on them but to give them the right to choose the kind of society they want.
Our people have indeed voted for the kind of government they want. Now it’s time, faced by a barrage of legislation that deeply affects openness and participation enshrined as constitutional obligations, to assert again the right to determine the kind of society we want. We cannot do this if we do not have information at our disposal.
Today, we face the most difficult challenge that has arisen since our freedom in 1994.
The ambiguously named Protection of Information Bill of 2010, really an Official Secrets Bill, should not be ignored by anyone because it will determine what we are entitled to hold in our hands and share with others. It does not affect the press only. It will affect ordinary people who may possess what they do not realise is classified information and may render them liable to 25 years’ imprisonment.
As far as the threat of a Media Appeals Tribunal is concerned, if we do go that route it will be the way of a banana republic. Some with handy access to power have said that there’s no reason why journalists should not be fined or even imprisoned.
The press is the only effective countervailing body we have to the greed, venality and abuse of authority by public and private power.
Dear Mr President, you are wrong that the Constitution does not provide priority to one right over another (see the Christian Association case). The press is certainly not merely a commercial operation, nor is it merely a contender for information in the marketplace.
Only one-party states have a press that does not rely on the readers’ taste. Set up your own paper as this is a democracy and let it have its head. It will tell you, if you leave journalists alone, that the Bill before Parliament is not only perfidious but a licence for clowns and warlords.