History is a great teacher. When actions are committed for which no consequence is foreseeable, we can always resort to history for reference, because it is there where the clearest mirror to society is most reflective. The ongoing national conversation around the public spat between African National Congress Deputy Secretary General, comrade Jessie Duarte, and eNCA journalist, Samkele Maseko, has re-ignited an even more pertinent conversation around the role of the media in our democratic dispensation and its relationship to the public. This conversation begs for critical engagement, not only because media freedom is one of the fundamental pillars on which our democracy rests, but because failure to protect this freedom impedes on the strengthening of the democracy for which so many sacrificed.
It is not an accident of history that one of the first things that get attacked or compromised when a country begins its descent into chaos is the media. History is littered with many examples of this, and for the purpose of relatability, let me reflect closer to home. The heinous genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was precipitated by the capture of the media, particularly radio, a medium that was easily accessible to the general public. It was through radio that propaganda against Tutsi people was spread. Every hour of the day, interjections would be made in broadcasting, to relay a dangerous narrative about Tutsi people being the source of all the problems of Rwanda. By the time the genocide was in full steam, the narrative had claimed hegemony – the extermination of the Tutsi “cockroaches” was the panacea to the resolution of Rwanda’s problems.
Much closer to home in Zimbabwe, when the state turned on its citizens, it began first with a brutal assault on free press. In 2002, the Bulawayo offices of the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s leading independent daily newspaper, were petrol-bombed. Around the same period, the private printing firm, Daily Press, also had its offices burnt down after a bomb was hurled inside.
Further afield, one of the most savage massacres and assaults on free press occurred in January 2015 when two brothers, Saḯd and Cherif Kouachi, armed with rifles and other weapons, forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo in Paris and killed twelve people and injured eleven others. Attacks on the media abound – on the continent and across the world.
The South African government at some point attempted to flirt with the idea of launching a much more sophisticated attack on press freedom through the introduction of the Protection of Information Bill, commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill. This highly problematic piece of proposed legislation sought to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information, weighing state interests up against transparency and freedom of expression. At the heart of the controversy around this Bill is its failure to balance these competing principles by including within it provisions that undoubtedly undermine the right to access information, but perhaps more dangerously for the democratic project, the rights of whistleblowers and journalists.
Had it been passed as it was, the Bill would have ensured that atrocities such as Nkandla, State Capture in which the Guptas played a central role, the grand looting and collapse of SARS and the Public Investment Corporation, would have remained untold stories – buried in the books of history, their decomposing stench concealed from an unknowing public.
The Bill was challenged by many organisations, including the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Right2Know campaign and many others. But perhaps most pointedly, the Bill was challenged even within the ANC itself, with some of our leaders deployed in the national assembly refusing to participate in its adoption. On the occasion of its passing in parliament, ANC MPs, comrades Ben Turok and Gloria Borman demonstrated their protestation against the Bill by walking out and abstaining from the vote, respectively. This was perhaps the most important act of resistance against the Bill, not only because the resistance came from within, but because the basis for that resistance is an age-old debate for which we should, as a society, never tire: a debate on the public interest.
One of the things about the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that should terrify us as a society is not only that its leader has become a metonymy of the organisation, but that it has fashioned itself into a vehicle of attack against the media. Any organisation that invests itself in the consistent attacks on the media and journalists such as the EFF has done, is an organisation that must raise the ire and the fear of a public that must realise than an attack on press freedom is an attack on society as a whole.
It is for this reason that it must concern all of us, particularly those in the fold of the mass democratic movement, when component structures of our movement assume a regressive posture against the media. It must concern us not least because the people of South Africa have tasked us with the Herculean task of safeguarding this hard-won democracy against anyone and anything that threatens it – even if such a threat arises from within. To protect those in our own midst who seek to betray our ongoing fight for freedom in its totality, is to flirt with political expediency.
Political expediency must be criminalised. People who protect wrong things, who applaud when our own leaders victimise journalists or betray the public interest, should not find friendship and comradeship in us. As a matter of fact, those who protect wrong things must be subjected to the Law of Common Purpose with the perpetrators, because evil continues when good men and women do nothing, or when they applaud that evil.
Kgabo Morifi is the Tshwane District Secretary of the Young Communist League, a member of the ANC Tshwane ward 50 and a PhD candidate at the Tshwane University of Technology.