Today the Right2Know Campaign commemorates Black Wednesday, the day in 1977 when the Apartheid government banned a number of Black Consciousness organisations as well as three publications on the pretext that they were disseminating ‘inflammatory’ material that threatened national security. This commemoration reminds us of the lengths to which paranoid, unaccountable and corrupt states will go to suppress dissent.
As inequality and corruption deepen and social cohesion falters South Africa needs a media that can offer expression to the full range of voices and facilitate the substantive and complex debates about the social and economic future of the country.
Unfortunately, with various legislative threats to media freedom, high levels of concentration in ownership, widespread commercialisation and editorial cost cutting, and increasing threats to media freedom from government, and limits to internet access and freedom, our media is not well equipped for the challenges ahead.
Despite these many limitations, South Africa’s journalism institutions are able to play an important watchdog role, especially in investigative journalism on corruption and abuse of power in public affairs.
Black Wednesday offers us an opportunity to reflect on challenges to media freedom today:
Media Freedom, Media Diversity and Media Transformation
Right2Know has consistently argued that media freedom and media diversity are two sides of the same coin. Without freedom the media would become the voice of the government. Without media diversity and transformation, the media will remain largely the voice of an economic elite. But this requires a transformation that is deeper than many imagine – including a greater diversity of ownership and non-commercial media that can serve the marginalised.
However, the Minister of Communications has revived plans to limit media freedom, including proposals for a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), and sought to pursue a narrow programme of “media transformation” which would retain the current structures of the corporate media, but with new owners and shareholders.
Media transformation cannot be limited to changing the racial and gender demographics of shareholders, managers and media workers in the dominant corporations. We need a media landscape that is more inclusive and that fosters more platforms for more voices, especially those that are the most marginalised.
This requires a clear programme of better public funding for community and alternative media, which ensures editorial independence and does not force community media to become the mouthpieces of government and local political interests.
Media are a public good – a constitutional right that is the key to the realisation and defence of other rights. If media consumption and production opportunities remain in the grip of monopolies, they will continue to be enjoyed disproportionately by the economically powerful. In a country with such high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, appropriate interventions may be necessary to counter market forces that contribute to this phenomenon. We should not have to choose between media that are beholden to political interests and media that are beholden to corporate interests. We need more media, not less; more voices, not fewer.
Media freedom on campuses
The clampdown and crisis on university campuses around the country have come with serious challenges to media freedom. At times this has included total media blackouts, such as the University of Johannesburg barring journalists from entering campus, and a police in Grahamstown barring journalists from covering clashes between police and protesters this week.
The abuse of power and lack of discipline on display by police and private security at these recent has been disgraceful, and have included serious attacks on journalists and media workers. Media workers have been assaulted, pepper sprayed, injured with batons and wrongfully detained – along with many others.
At the hands of police and private security, journalists and citizen journalists (including protesters and observers) have been threatened and and prevented from taking photographs or footage, forced to delete photos or had their equipment confiscated. This is unlawful and blatant abuse. People have the right to record the police and private security and we demand they stop interfering with people’s right to record them.
We are also concerned by reported threats, intimidation and acts of intolerance to journalists by various individuals associated with campus protests. Journalists have an obligation to report fairly and accurately on these events. Some have done this well, and many have not – but media rights cannot be selectively applied. It has never been more important for university spaces to be openly and fairly covered by the media.
We call on all parties – police, private security, university management and protesters – to uphold media workers’ right to report, and stop interfering with their work.
The state of the SABC
The public broadcaster has run aground because of patronage, cronyism and political interference. We have seen the censorship of news and attempts to purge critical journalists. The events unfolding in recent months has been unparalleled in the post-1994 life of the SABC.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s continued rule at the SABC, in defiance of the courts and the Public Protector, is an outrage and a clear-cut case of State Capture. We continue to demand that Hlaudi must go! The Board must be dissolved and should reconstituted through an open and democratic process. Minister Muthambi, who has been totally complicit in the destruction wrought to the SABC, must also go!
Internet Freedom & #datamustfall
In recent weeks South African social media users have rallied under the slogan #DataMustFall. R2K wholeheartedly supports this call, which is central to achieving freedom of expression and media freedom for millions of people in South Africa. As technologies converge and more people people turn to the internet to access their information and express themselves. However, the democratising potential of the internet is frustrated in South Africa because of the high cost of network access – especially for the poor majority who rely on mobile networks controlled by a handful of corporations hell bent on maximising profits at the expense of people’s right to communicate.
Right2Know has called on government stop this cartel like profiteering and adopt policies that enable greater internet access and facilitate the creation of community-owned networks. In this regard right2Know cautiously welcomes proposals in the recently published ICT White Paper to limit spectrum allocated to the incumbent corporations and promote open access of spectrum.
Network access is only the first hurdle in securing the rights to expression and information access on the Internet. Right2Know remains concerned by efforts to regulate online content pursued by the Film and Publication Board and the drafters of the Cybercrimes Bill, as well as the surveillances provisions of RICA.
To mark Black Wednesday:
- Right2Know in Gauteng is picketing outside MTN offices, one of the worst offenders when it comes to ripping off mobile users.
- Right2Know in the Western Cape is holding a dialogue on Press Freedom in the Age of Protest