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SA media under assault

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There is a scene in Grimknife Jr’s Story in Dambudzo Marechera’s book Mindblast in which prisoner Grimknife Jr is having a conversation with his jailer, Rix the Giant Cat:

“Well, Grimknife, we are in this together. I’m here to help you. Help you become a useful citizen.” “What’s that – a useful citizen?”

“Someone who does what he is told. Someone who says exactly what others say. Someone who is the spitting image of Duty, Responsibility and Patriotism.”

For years I have imagined this as conversation between Jonathan Moyo and Dambudzo Marechera.

A talk between the architect of the devastation of independent media and a writer who believed in the freedom of thought and expression.

It is a conversation South Africa is having now. There is a dawning realisation that you may have fought together in the trenches against the common enemy – apartheid – but now the contradictions begin to manifest themselves.

The history of all modern nations shows the conflict between the state and media (private and public).

The contradictions are a reflection of the wider struggle in a society in which social inequalities persist and where, as academic Stephen Friedman argues, “it is the relationship between money and politics that lies at the root of the ANC’s problem — and causes damage well beyond that: tension between the ANC and the media is fuelled by the fear that politicians want the law to prevent us knowing where they get their money and what they do with it”.

But Mandela-land was supposed to be different. After all, here is a nation that gave the world one of the most liberal and forward-looking constitutions.

Yet it seems just like the dismantling of the Scorpions, the taming of the media seems to be part of the plan of hawks in the African National Congress to deal with institutions perceived to be hostile to the ruling party’s agenda.

The recent arrest of Sunday Times reporter Mzilikazi wa Africa, on allegations of having forged a resignation letter by the premier of Mpumalanga, has added fuel to the flames of suspicion that the ANC and government have now declared war on the media.

To understand what is happening one has to go back to the ANC Polokwane congress in 2007 where the party adopted a resolution on the transformation of the media. Embedded within that resolution was the setting — up of a media appeals tribunal.

In its current form the draft legislation is scary enough: the Minister of Intelligence will be able to classify whatever information across ministries and state enterprises as secret.

Should a civil society leak that information they could face up to 25 years in prison and so would the receiver of that information.

Now for journalists that spells disaster and they argue that information that does not threaten state security and is in the public interest should be out there for the people to see.

After all, that is how accountability works – you reveal what politicians try to conceal.

But the bill also goes further with a proposal for a Media Appeals Tribunal.

Dismissing the ability of the media to regulate itself, the ANC claims that a tribunal that is answerable to parliament would act as an arbitrator when certain parties lodge complaints against the media and would also ensure adherence to journalistic ethics and professionalism.

ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, speaking on SAfm’s PM Live, dismissed the Press Ombudsman’s Office as an institution created by the media and that did not have the ability to impose punitive measures.

Julius Malema has not been remotely diplomatic on the matter and has declared that the tribunal is a done deal.

But the editors are not taking the issue lying down. The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) has said that even if the bill became legislation, they would take the matter all the way to the constitutional court.

In an unprecedented show of solidarity, all the editors of the major national and regional newspapers have signed what they call the Auckland Park Declaration and in part it reads:

“Free speech and access to information are the lifeblood of our democracy and we are at the very heart of the struggle for freedom… We appeal to the South African Government and the ruling ANC to abide by the founding principles of our democracy, and to abandon these proposed measures.

We commit ourselves to join hands with all South Africans who value their freedom to defend these basic rights which are enshrined in our constitution.” Is it all doom and gloom?

Well, South Africa still has something that Zimbabwe had lost by the time the assault on the media was in full force – an independent judiciary and an especially bold Constitutional Court.

It could be the one institution that saves the media.

Given that Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale has come out strongly in favour of freedom of expression one hopes, rather forlornly, that other moderate figures in the ruling party will make a stand on this issue.

The challenge, as some editors have noted, is to rally ordinary citizens by making the issue one about freedom of speech rather than narrowly about the media.

But maybe the ANC should take heed of what someone called Keith Gottschalk wrote in a letter to the editor of Business Day:

“The African National Congress (ANC) has the proud record of opposing repression throughout its 82 years in opposition — longer even than the five decades of the Progs-Democratic Alliance.

ANC MPs should surely realise that when the ANC is again in opposition, as in the Western Cape and in more municipalities, they will increasingly depend on the media to expose DA corruption and cronyism.”

Chris Kabwato is the publisher of www.zimbabweinpictures.com

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