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Media Freedom in South Africa: the two-part formula for securing freedom of expression

Media Freedom in South Africa: the two-part formula for securing freedom of expression

By Julie Reid | Amandla! Magazine Issue 54 | October 2017

Some 1,000 people protest on November 22, 2011 outside the South African Parliament in Cape Town against the Protection of State Information Bill. South Africa’s parliament on November 22 approved the controversial state secrets bill despite an outcry that it will threaten democracy and prevent exposure of corruption by investigative journalists. The bill was approved in a 229-107 vote, with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) accused of endangering democracy as it used its hefty majority in the National Assembly to muscle it through. AFP PHOTO / RODGER BOSCH (Photo credit should read RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

In October, those of us working in the media sector and related fields pause to remember the terrible events of Black Wednesday in 1977. On that day, the apartheid government detained and banned a number of Black Consciousness Movement aligned activists and also shut down three newspapers, in an overt attempt to muzzle the critical press. Forty years later, it is important to acknowledge the advancements for media freedom since those dark times. Today media freedom is protected by Constitutional law. Small pockets of truly excellent investigative journalism have had an undeniable impact on the political life of the country – the recent work by Amabhungane and Daily Maverick on the Gupta Leaks saga is one example.

But just because things are not as bad as they were during apartheid does not mean that the media system is entirely free or free from threat. Nor does it indicate that the sector is operating as well as it should, according to democratic principles. The current threats to journalistic freedom of expression rights are interlinked, but they can be broadly defined in three categories: legislative threats, threats from surveillance and direct threats.

Legislative threats

There is a new legal and policy framework under construction. Under this framework, journalists and digital news publishers stand to be criminalised for performing ordinary journalistic work. Problematically, these new regulations, policies and bills are too often assessed in isolation from one another. Both policy makers and critics deal with them separately. This silo-type approach misses the over-arching implications which this hodgepodge of new regulation will collectively have on the media and communications landscape in the country, and its negative implications for freedom of expression for both the news media and ordinary citizens.

Each of the new policies within the media regulatory landscape contain provisions which take away from media freedom. Collectively, if implemented together in their current form, they would construct a regulatory regime which would severely inhibit the promotion of media freedom, and freedom of expression more broadly. These provisions include, for example, the Film and Publication Board’s online regulations and amendment bill, the Prevention and Combatting of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, the Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity bill, presumably the Media Appeals Tribunal, and should it ever see the light of day again, the Protection of State Information Bill.

Threats from surveillance

Secondly, the country’s increasingly draconian surveillance regime allows for the unbridled surveillance of digital mass communications by the state’s security agencies, presumably at the behest of political actors. The work done by Heidi Swart, Jane Duncan and Dale McKinley for the Media Policy & Democracy Project indicates that state spies make use of loopholes in the country’s relevant law (RICA) to do as they please. They now have the capacity to spy on just about anyone without too much trouble. This poses a great worry to investigative journalists, especially with regard to confidentiality of sources or whistle blower protection.

Direct threats

Thirdly, direct threats to journalists’ safety are becoming worryingly more acute, particularly amid ongoing community and student protests. Wrongful arrest, illegal detention, assault and harassment of journalists increase steadily. It is no longer uncommon for journalists to have their footage forcibly deleted by police or private security workers, or to receive deaths threats.

Threats are one thing, but a really disturbing indicator is that journalists have started dying.

In 2014, photojournalist Michael Tsele was shot dead by the police while covering a community protest. On 17 April of this year, the internationally recognised Zimbabwean journalist who was living and working in South Africa at the time, Godknows Nare, was also shot and killed by police. And who could forget the passing of Suna Venter, a member of the SABC 8 who were dismissed from their positions at the public broadcaster for refusing to bow to managerial pressure and adhere to conditions of censorship? Venter was subsequently harassed on various occasions, and in one incident was kidnapped from her home, tied to a tree on Melville Koppie and had the grass at her feet set alight. In June she passed away from stress cardiomyopathy, otherwise called “broken heart syndrome”.

Added to this, which often goes unnoticed, is the number of assassinations of whistle blowers who talk to the media. In most cases of whistle blower assassination, the murder victim is someone who was in the process of exposing an instance of government-related corruption. The names of whistle blower victims include Xola Banisi, James Nkambule and Moss Phakoe.

Why the public silence?

All these threats to journalists’ personal safety and freedom of expression rights are clear, and when seen collectively the picture is ominous. The situation has deteriorated significantly in a very short space of time –only one decade. One would reasonably expect that this would cause a parallel public outcry, or a ground-swell of popular support for journalistic freedom of expression rights. One would imagine that the public would spring to the naredefence of media rights, understanding that these are fundamentally important to the national discourse in the interests of a healthy democracy. But this is not happening, at least not to any significant or sustained degree. Media freedom proponents are mostly lone voices from the media and civil society sectors, but not from a collectively mobilized active citizenry. The question is, why not?

History shows that the protection of media rights is the result of hard-won battles which are backed by organised, popular mobilisation and support. Media workers and journalists will not win the fight to secure their freedom of expression rights on their own. This struggle necessitates a ground-up popular mobilisation and a movement advocating for media workers’ rights. But in South Africa, popular mobilisation has been difficult to achieve.

Part of the reason for this lies in the corporatized, neoliberal structure of the South African media market. It effectively excludes the majority from meaningful levels of access to a variety of media products. The bulk of news media content currently on offer in the country is out of reach for the majority of citizens. This is due to a number of factors involving the cost of access, inequitable geographic distribution and the language of publication.

Cape Independent Newspaper staff picket ouside Parliament. August 25 2010
Photo by Michael Walker

The country’s media transformation since 1994 has been directed by a commercial model, which has reinforced and which parallels economic and social inequalities. As a result, the press has privileged stories of interest to a small segment of society – the economically secure. Meanwhile, it misrepresents and under-reports on the economically disadvantaged and marginalised who are in the majority.

A number of recently published research reports have produced evidence of this. Moreover, even when particular events within communities are reported on in the media, research participants consistently maintain that these are habitually misrepresented. This often happens because of the stereotyping of community members (as poor, un-educated, ill-informed or unreasonably violent). Journalists continually revert to voices of “authority” in reporting on events, such as statements from the police services or politicians, rather than seeking comment from people directly affected by events on the ground. This means that the media narrative is one in which grassroots voices are almost always missing.

This helps to explain why little popular or public value would be vested in journalistic freedom of expression rights. Why would the majority audience come to the defence of media which it cannot access, and which routinely misrepresents and under-represents the majority of people and does nothing to inform their daily experiences or satisfy their information needs?

The sector remains vulnerable

This leaves the mainstream media sector open to attack from government or policy-makers. The latter cite the corporate and private media’s lack of transformation as reason enough to justify state intervention. Government arguments are often based on conjecture and not fact. The proposed regulatory interventions would not necessarily be effective in addressing media diversity issues. Yet ironically the lack of media content diversity and accessibility gives the state an argument.

The struggle to secure press freedoms in the present and future South Africa contains two key tasks. The first and most obvious task is to foster long-term, vigilant counter-movements against the forces which are using any of these threats to whittle away at freedom of expression rights.  The second task is one which must begin with serious introspection conducted by the media sector, in and for itself. This should be followed by an open, honest and transparent process of legitimate structural transformation of the entire sector from the bottom up.

Dr Julie Reid is based at the Department of Communication Science at UNISA, and is a project leader for the Media Policy & Democracy Project

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  1. […] Media freedom continues to face external threats in the form of legislation, intimidation, harassment and surveillance. […]

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