A reluctant respect for press freedom
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.