Finweek English Edition - - Column -

‘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.

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