“Information may be power, but do you have the money to access this knowledge?”
Whilst trying to educate myself on the recent controversy surrounding the public protector and her report on Pravin Gordhan, I came across an article in my Google search that seemed as if would explain the intricacies of the situation clearly to me.
However, to my dismay I discovered that the article on this website was blocked: the only way I could access this formation is by subscribing to the site, which involved me paying a fee each month. As one who does not have much disposable income, I had to concede to the sad reality that whilst this article looked illuminating, I would not be able to access due to my not having the means to pay the monthly fee.
I like to think of myself as a resilient individual, so this minor setback did not deter me, and I eventually ended up reading various articles that shed light on the issue and as such I felt more knowledgeable on the issue. However, throughout this process there were more than one instance where I could not access information due to the pay walls in place.
One of the bedrocks of an engaged and politically aware society is the access to information of what is happening in their society. If this society has this information available to them freely, they are able to organize, galvanize and hold those in power accountable. It is so important to the exercise of freedom that it is enshrined in Section 32 of the Constitution.
However, when one places barriers to the access of vital information about the workings of those which govern them, the majority are left in the dark. Within this darkness corruption and undemocratic tendencies by municipalities and governments flourish because if these illegal acts are not brought to the public’s attention and easily accessible to the public, the guilty are not held accountable. People cannot engage in informed, strategic action without access to information.
Whilst writing this I am well aware that while doing the Google search I had access to WIFI within the comfort of my home. Due to this when the paywalls prevented me from access to the sites, I was in the privileged position to find another site which were freely accessible.
We live in country in which the reality is that people are barely able to buy food for themselves, never mind data. We live in a county in which people do not even have landline connections, how then would they be able to access WIFI? These are very real barriers to accessing information.
The unfortunate reality to this story is that while the amazing investigative reports that expose corruption in government and other elicit activities are hidden behind pay walls, information that is fake, and which is trying to drum up divisions within society, has no paywalls. This information is free to all and made as easy to access as possible.
I am well aware of the importance of journalism within a democracy and the role journalists play in upholding and holding our institutions to account and that with declining newspaper sales and the migration of many people getting their information via the internet it’s tough for these journalists to get paid. However, access to information is a basic right and needs to be addressed if we are serious about being an inclusive, democratic societies in which those that we task with governing us are held to account those they elected them into power.
Mikhail Petersen holds a Bachelors of Social Science degree in Politics and Economic History as well as an LLB from UCT. Mikhail is an intern within the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town.