Guest Column

Media freedom: It's all about your freedom

2019-05-03 09:18
Some 1,000 people protest on Nov. 22, 2011 outside the South African Parliament in Cape Town against the Protection of State Information Bill. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

Some 1,000 people protest on Nov. 22, 2011 outside the South African Parliament in Cape Town against the Protection of State Information Bill. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

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It is exactly 190 years since the first press freedom victory at the Cape and it is 25 years after democracy, and yet a gang of thugs think they can tear pages from a book and threaten to burn it, writes Lizette Rabe.

Today is World Press Freedom Day. Earlier this week, on April 30th, exactly 190 years ago, the first press freedom battle was won at the Cape. But ironically, 25 years after democracy, a group of thugs disrupt a book launch, tear pages from the book, and even threaten to burn the book.

The very first press freedom victory at the Cape was on April 30, 1829, when Ordinance number 60 of the Cape of Good Hope was signed. It was announced in the Government Gazette on May 8, with effect from May 15, and was the successful end to a long, bitter and merciless struggle for press freedom between the Cape Colonial Authorities and what would become South Africa's first press freedom fighters. The Ordinance would become known as the Magna Carta, following the original Magna Carta, or Freedom Charter, which nobility forced from the British king in 1215. After that, "Magna Carta" became a synonym for a document that guarantees fundamental rights and freedoms.

The Cape's Magna Carta for press freedom declared that the press would henceforth only be subject to "courts and the ordinary laws of the country". The implication that it was previously subject to the moods and judgment of the Cape colonial governor, is spot on. That's exactly how it was. After all, if there is still yet another British colonial ruler whose name should be questioned, it is that of Lord Charles Somerset. He was described as a dictator and despot, and allowed no press freedom at the Cape. Two early Cape press freedom fighters had to go to London to put their case. One, George Greig, was also deported by Somerset. He undermined it by getting himself on a ship before the deportation order, to be able to set the case for a free press as a free man in London.

READ: How South Africa ranks in the press freedom stakes

However, it would take a few more years before the "Magna Carta" was signed, and only after another press freedom pioneer, John Fairbairn, travelled to London to convince colonial authorities of the Cape's need for press freedom. On his return, he was jubilantly welcomed by his "cheering fans", holding a silver vase aloft to commemorate the occasion. As it was stated: "The fight was over. For now."

No more 'arbitrary oppression'

For, indeed, it was only for that brief period that press freedom was a given, even though the pioneers of the time announced that "the Star of democracy has risen and that of autocracy is setting". The Cape press was henceforth under the control and protection of the law, and no "arbitrary oppression could take place anymore".

The Ordinance also became known as the "Freedom Charter for the Press" and eventually stimulated the development of both the English and Cape Dutch press. Because the official language was English, the newly-found press freedom therefore indeed had unintended consequences: it stimulated the birth of the Dutch press, with Dutch citizens now also starting their own newspapers, leading to the beginnings of the Cape Dutch, then Dutch-Afrikaans, and finally, Afrikaans, press.

The year 1829 therefore introduced a new era for the Cape press. In 1943 one of the first comprehensive studies on the South African press even stated that since 1829 it was "impossible" for the various authorities in South Africa to curb the development of the press. Such a statement is of course relative, because there were frequent tensions between the press and the government of the day, and newspapers were still censored or muzzled according to the will of the government, whether it was by a Paul Kruger in his Zuid-Afrikaanssche Republiek, or whether the apartheid government and all its states of emergency.

Media freedom must be untouchable

And then in 1994, after the first democratic election, the "new" South Africa dawned, with shortly afterwards the new South African Constitution that entrenched press freedom, or media freedom, or freedom of speech, or freedom of expression – however you want to call the right to express yourself – in its Article 16. Of course, together with responsibilities, because something like absolute freedoms do not exist. The media is, and always must be, subject to various responsibilities, but the point of departure of media freedom must be untouchable.

Over the past few years, the value of media freedom became increasingly clear as the scale of state capture increased. While newsrooms are under tremendous pressure due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its not yet profitable digital economy, investigative journalism is our saving grace and helped bring glimmers of hope on a very dark horizon.

Without investigative journalists as constant guards on our towers, South Africa would have been even deeper in the morass of corruption and state capture. The reaction a week or two ago on one such revealing work, Gangster State by Pieter-Louis Myburgh, shows the extent of "thug rule" and how deep the rot lies. It is a quarter of a century after 1994's first, euphoric democratic elections, but this gang of hooligans think tearing pages from a book at its launch (whilst at the same time helping themselves enthusiastically to refreshments), is acceptable, not to mention their threats to burn the book.

Really? Is this happening after a quarter of a century after '94? Can some people really think such populist but dangerous rhetoric is acceptable? German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), not coincidentally of Jewish descent, said where books are burned, people will also be burned.

And that's why every citizen needs to stand up to protect media freedom, as it ultimately concerns the individual's freedom. In the words of Mpumelelo Mkhabela, a former chair of the South African National Editors' Forum: "Media freedom has nothing to do with the media, but with the freedom of citizens."

There will always be tension between the media and governments – that's how it should be. The former is the watchdog of what happens in governments. As the ears and eyes of the citizens, they must sniff around where government wants to cover up. Especially in South Africa, the free media actually adopted an opposition role, because if it were not for investigative journalism, we would not have yet realised the extent and depth of state capture.

According to the 2019 Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Namibia is performing best on our continent. At number 23 it is Africa's Number One. As in the previous year's index, the state of press freedom in 22 of the 48 sub-Saharan countries are either "bad" or "very bad". Zimbabwe dropped one place, from 126, to 127 – even marginally worse than under Robert Mugabe. South Africa is at 31 and slipped three places after being rated at 28 last year.

According to RWB South Africa's secret service is spying on some journalists and their phones are being tapped. Indeed: as under the old dispensation. Also, RWB says journalists are being harassed and intimidated as they try to write about some topics relating to the ruling ANC. And it looks as if it has become a national pastime to insult journalists. The RWB's index specifically refers to "one party leader" who is guilty of hate speech against journalists. All this confirms to RWB that, despite its entrenchment in the Constitution, press freedom is not yet a given in South Africa.

One thing is clear, whether it's the 190-year-old Magna Carta, or our 25-year-old democracy: Freedom of the press, or media freedom, is never a matter of course. That's why, as a citizen, you have to stand up when media freedom is threatened because it ultimately concerns the individual's rights and freedoms – yours.

- Lizette Rabe is professor in the journalism department at Stellenbosch University. Pieter-Louis Myburgh, alumnus and author of Gangster State, is the speaker at the department's World Press Freedom Day celebration Friday at 13:00 in room 230, Arts and Social Sciences building on the corner of Ryneveld and Merriman Streets. His subject is "The state of media freedom in South Africa in the context of investigative journalism".

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. ener is a specialist reporter for News24.

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