A re­luc­tant re­spect for press free­dom

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Frankly Let’s Talk

Ta­bane is au­thor of and host of Power Per­spec­tive on Power 987 Sun­day to Thurs­day 9.30pm to mid­night

THE MAD rant­ing of Black First Land First, amount­ing to ha­rass­ment of jour­nal­ists do­ing their work, shouldn’t come as a sur­prise. Quite frankly, it seems to me that free­dom of the press is seen as a right that politi­cians can hand over and take away from jour­nal­ists when­ever they see fit.

A few in­ci­dents over the last two decades of our free­dom show that we all need to go back to school to learn what this free­dom ac­tu­ally means. This con­duct started with the founder of our democ­racy and was car­ried forth by all his suc­ces­sors to date and, frankly, we haven’t got it right. In this con­duct even the op­po­si­tion par­ties have joined in from time to time for good mea­sure.

Nel­son Man­dela at­tempted to get black edi­tors to re­port on ac­tiv­i­ties of his ad­min­is­tra­tion in a favourable way, and had some heated ex­changes with the me­dia as a re­sult.

By call­ing on black jour­nal­ists to re­port like sheep, he demon­strated a deep mis­un­der­stand­ing that while black jour­nal­ists may share po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tives with the ANC, es­pe­cially ahead of the 1994 elec­tions, they owed the ANC noth­ing and were obliged to re­port the truth with­out fear, favour or prej­u­dice.

Man­dela’s be­lief that the fourth es­tate should join in na­tion build­ing made him for­get what the con­sti­tu­tion that he signed into law in 1996 said about the free­dom of the press.

Thabo Mbeki’s big­gest weak­ness was to see jour­nal­ists as in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­fe­rior be­ings who “don’t get it”. And while this was never ex­pressed ex­plic­itly, it was felt by jour­nal­ists who dared chal­lenge him.

Even though, as head of state, he could be pub­lished at any time, he reck­oned that the only way the ANC could put its views across was for the party to have its own news­pa­per, where its per­spec­tive would not be edited by these in­tel­lec­tual un­der­lings.

He launched one, with a key fea­ture be­ing his own Let­ter from the Pres­i­dent, meant to put across an un­medi­ated per­spec­tive. This project didn’t out­live his pres­i­dency.

While there is space for un­medi­ated com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the launch of this news­let­ter showed a cer­tain level of in­tol­er­ance to­wards me­dia free­dom to ex­press how the me­dia felt about his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Es­sop Pa­had, one of Mbeki’s right-hand men, who iron­i­cally is now edi­tor of a Jour­nal called The Thinker, was the worst en­forcer of deeds that car­ried this ter­ri­ble un­der­stand­ing of what press free­dom means, and was the first to think up an ad­ver­tis­ing ban against news­pa­pers that were seen to be rude to the gov­ern­ment.

This mad idea was im­ple­mented in cer­tain parts of the gov­ern­ment against the likes of The Mail & Guardian. I’m glad it was gen­er­ally ig­nored in large parts of the gov­ern­ment, but sadly, it’s rear­ing its ugly head again, this time led by Arts and Cul­ture Min­is­ter Nathi Mthethwa.

The Zuma ad­min­is­tra­tion is par­tic­u­larly acute in its ig­no­rance of what press free­dom meant, and is crude about it. Leg­is­la­tion that sought to in­tim­i­date jour­nal­ists has been pur­sued since Zuma came onto the scene.

The so-called Se­crecy Bill tops the list as the scari­est of the lot. The en­vis­aged me­dia ap­peals tri­bunal was the cre­ation of cow­ards who’ve failed to cre­ate a pos­i­tive rep­u­ta­tion for the ANC and are left with ex­plor­ing in­tim­i­da­tion tac­tics such as this.

The leg­is­la­tion, although passed in 2007, hasn’t seen the light of day, largely be­cause the ar­gu­ments for it are ter­ri­bly weak and are un­likely to with­stand con­sti­tu­tional muster.

De­spite a full in­quiry con­ducted by the late Judge Pius Langa in­di­cat­ing that the self-reg­u­la­tion mech­a­nism can only be strength­ened and not dis­carded or placed un­der politi­cians, the Zuma regime seems de­ter­mined to go to war with the me­dia.

Part of the strat­egy was to cre­ate pro­pa­ganda tools such as the gov­ern­ment rag called Vuk’Zen­zele, which has proved to be in­ef­fec­tive, reach­ing only about 30% of its tar­get au­di­ence.

As if that wasn’t enough bad news for proper jour­nal­ism in the new South Africa, en­ter The New Age and ANN7, rep­re­sent­ing some of the worst jour­nal­ism en­ter­prises since 1994 in the name of an al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tive.

While the con­text of plant­ing of a bad seed is un­der­stood as giv­ing rise to dem­a­goguery against the me­dia, it must pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to re­vise our at­ti­tude to­wards this free­dom. The po­lice must start by ar­rest­ing Andile Mngxi­tama for de­fy­ing the court in­ter­dict that pro­hibits him from in­tim­i­dat­ing jour­nal­ists.

Sim­i­larly, ac­tion must be taken against Mthethwa for threat­en­ing to with­draw gov­ern­ment ad­ver­tis­ing from the so-called neg­a­tive press. This is equally an as­sault on me­dia free­dom; as is He­len Zille’s can­cel­la­tion of her sub­scrip­tion to the Cape Times, or even the black­list­ing of ANN7 from EFF events by Julius Malema.

While it’s easy to re­fer to what the ANC has done against a free press on var­i­ous oc­ca­sions, it looks like the party is in good com­pany.

There is a need for all of us to take a pause and re­fresh our un­der­stand­ing of what it means to have a con­sti­tu­tion that pro­tects the fourth es­tate jeal­ously.

THREAT: Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxi­tama, cen­tre, with their le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive, ad­vo­cate Bran­don Sha­bangu, left, at the high court in Joburg.

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