Don’t mess with the press

2010-10-16 10:26

This country’s ruling alliance has signalled its intention to establish either an authoritarian state like China’s or a controlled quasi­democracy like Russia’s. What cannot be doubted is that the ANC, its youth league and the South African Communist Party hate the press, and dissing it is the only cause currently uniting them.

The forces defending democracy stretch from mainstream liberals through left-liberals to libertarian leftists. All of these now accept what leftists did not always: the value of political pluralism and choice, of freedom of expression and information.Yet one also encounters some odd notes. Some on the left direct their fire not against the state but against the media.

These leftists have important, pro-democratic points to make about the need for more media diversity, better­resourced community media and greater media attention on the lives and struggles of the poor. Which serious follower of news has not been exasperated by personality-driven, reactive and speculative journalism? Journalism practitioners themselves call for jacked-up professional standards.

Yet the media has also done indispensable work in exposing the corruption, incompetence and greed that rob the poor. Criticism of the government counterbalances the ANC’s liberationist hegemony, contributing to political pluralism. These are surely the real reasons why the ANC and its allies want the media tamed.

So why train fire on the media now, in the face of government onslaught? The strategic logic behind this was explained to me by a respected activist-intellectual. The government should not be allowed to portray the campaign against the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed media tribunal as a middle-class effort to protect elite liberal freedoms.

They must see that opposition also comes from the ranks of those attuned to the struggles of the poor. What these media-critical leftists are saying is that newspapers provide too little, not too much, exposure of the way the state harasses and immiserates the poor. That government policy has facilitated the concentration of economic power whose manifestation in ­media monopoly the ANC decries.

Yet there is a strategic counter-argument to that of the media­critical, pro-democratic left: that the flagellation of the media in the name of deeper democracy plays into the hands of those intent on doing the media in. Supporters of the bill and tribunal seize any criticism of the media as evidence that it requires statutory controls.

On this alternative view, which I share, the fate of freedoms of ­expression and information is not so easily separated from that of the existing media. Sink one, sink both. But the immediate issue is not about poor versus rich; it’s about democracy versus dictatorship. We are in a state of emergency that requires a focused strategic response.

My deeper fear is that the media-critical left will inadvertently ­relegitimate an argument that I’d hoped was dead and buried: that “substantive” freedoms should ­enjoy priority over merely “formal” ones, that socioeconomic rights trump democratic liberties. This doctrine deems media freedom bourgeois, a tool of privilege and counter-revolution. The ­doctrine was used to justify ­decades of totalitarian repression by communist regimes.

All resisting the doctrine should make sure the following points are heard: media freedoms are indivisible from other freedoms; the poor need democratic liberties in order to access their other rights; any ­attempt to introduce a proletarian qualification for democratic ­entitlement is doomed to end in ­division and tears; and human flourishing depends on the enjoyment of a full panoply of freedoms, including freedom to know your government and oppose it.

»?Glaser is associate professor of political studies at the University of Witwatersrand

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