01 September 2010
Oppose media censorship! Oppose state authoritarianism! Not in our names! Democratise the media!
The Conference of the Democratic Left (CoDL) condemns government and ANC attempts to curb media freedom in South Africa, made manifest in the Protection of Information Bill and the proposal to establish a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal. We also note that these measures come in the wake of attempts to increase government control of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), through the Icasa Amendment Bill and the Public Services Broadcasting Bill. Taken together if this battery of legal reform is passed, the sum effect will ensure greater ANC influence and control of the media in general. Freedom of expression as a basic human right will be narrowed to ANC propaganda.
What is all the more odious for the CoDL is that the justifications for these measures are cloaked in politically progressive language. Over the past few weeks, we have heard prominent members of the ANC alliance arguing for the need to prevent sensitive information from falling to the hands of the imperialist powers, thereby making South Africa vulnerable to destabilisation by these powers: hence the need for the Protection of Information Bill. We have heard the ANC and prominent members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) arguing that the Tribunal is needed to correct a neo-liberal orientation in much of the print media, which they ascribe to excessive media concentration and commercialisation, and to discourage journalists from accepting money from politicians to produce biased coverage of those politicians.
There is nothing progressive about censorship. Censorship is incompatible with the democratic left tradition, even of those publications that we find ideologically disagreeable, or even repugnant. The democratic left tradition (as opposed to the authoritarian left tradition) has always promoted openness over secrecy, and freedom of expression over the control of public discourse. Rather, the approach of the democratic left tradition has been to struggle for the conditions in which freedom of expression can be enjoyed by all, and not just by those who own the printing presses. Censorship does not and cannot lead to greater freedom, ever. We distance ourselves from those in the ANC alliance who seek to cloak their censorious objectives in progressive language. Not in our names!
This does not mean that we are happy with the state of media transformation: far from it. As the democratic left, we are painfully aware of the deficiencies of the print media. We cannot say that we have an accessible and representative public sphere. On the whole, the print media do display class biases. Content studies have demonstrated that many newspapers have implicity or, during election time explicitly, supported politically centrist views, while providing scant space for working class views and coverage of working class politics.
But we also recognise that journalists can and do exercise relative autonomy from powerful interests in society. Some of the most important investigative stories of recent times have been broken by the print media. This role must be strengthened, not weakened, which is what will happen if the above measures are implemented, and which we surmise is the true intention of those pursuing these measures. In this regard, we note with alarm that the prime movers for censorship measures in the ANC alliance are those who have been publicly embarrassed by print media coverage. So it is difficult not to conclude that self-interest is driving their actions, rather than more altruistic motives.
Furthermore, as passive complaints’ receiving bodies, Press Councils do not lend themselves to addressing systemic problems in the media. If those who are making these arguments were serious about addressing such problems, they would have pursued anti-trust measures to prevent excessive media concentration and rent-seeking foreign ownership. They would also have implemented the 2002 Stellenbosch resolution of the ANC to establish a publicly funded media system. They would have insisted on legislated levies on the media to fund media diversity. The failure by the ANC government to nurture an independent, broad and thick network of grassroots media, for example, feeds into the maintenance of power by the rulers over the ruled; politicians over subjects in local spaces.
They would have researched and proposed measures to strengthen the control of media workers and users over the Press Ombudsman, drawing on international models to promote media accountability. They would have encouraged journalists to organise as a collective to defend the ethical basis of the craft from governments, media owners and managers and their less ethical peers. Journalistic self-activity and self-organisation is crucial to returning the media back to its democratic role enabling “a people’s frank confession to itself” (in Karl Marx’s words). The proponents of censorship have not implemented any of the abovementioned measures. Small wonder that we doubt their motives.
The argument that has been made by the ANC that the Tribunal will not undertake pre-publication censorship is hot air. The net effect of punitive measures, and possible jail terms for journalists will be that they will stop writing things that are critical of the government out of fear of these measures. So journalists will self-censor, which will make pre-publication censorship unnecessary.
We also welcome the fact that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has condemned the Protection of Information Bill, and taken a more measured approach to the proposed establishment of a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal.
The CoDL also believes that there are deeper shifts at work in South Africa, which are propelling us in the direction of greater centralised control of the media. In the current moment we are poised either to go down the road of the American model of liberal corporate democracy (which is what some in the media want), authoritarian state capitalism along Chinese lines as defined by the ‘Polokwane consensus’ or a renewed journey to build a democratic South Africa informed and imbued with our historical experience of overcoming oppression and injustice; a genuine people’s democracy.
South Africans need to stand up now and defend freedom of expression, call for an accountable and autonomous public media and demand the right for all to know. However, by itself the media question in South Africa is merely the symptom of a larger challenge we all face. Even if the ANC drops the statutory media tribunal proposal and revises other media bills, this is not sufficient to secure a democratic future for South Africa.
The Conference of the Democratic Left is a process where popular movements, organisations and activists are coming together to chart a new path for overcoming inequality and division in our country. A national conference is planned for December 2-5 this year where a platform and strategy for uniting our struggles against neo-liberal capitalism will be developed.
FOR COMMENTS Contact:
Brian Ashley (082 085 7088)
Jane Duncan (082 786 3600)
Mazibuko K. Jara (083 651 0271)
Vishwas Satgar (082 775 3420)
Issued by the Conference of the Democratic Left – http://democraticleft.za.net/