As any divorcee will tell you, falling out of love sucks. You understand that life as you know it is about to come to an end. It is how most journalists feel when they read the proposed Protection of Information Bill. So we have to ask, how did it come to this? How did it happen?
The fact is that many journalists will tell you it’s come as quite a surprise to find that this draft is so much worse, so much more draconian than the one that emerged during the Mbeki era. Since Polokwane, there’s been much more political openness, much more of a role for the press, and simply much more interaction between the media and politicians. President Jacob Zuma’s ANC administration has been about charming the pants off the media, rather than trying to shut it up. Think of Mathews Phosa vs Mendi Msimang, or Gwede Mantashe as opposed to Kgalema Motlanthe as the secretary general. When it comes to media profile, there’s no contest, the new guys were happier to be in the spotlight. Even Zuma himself, despite his rather rough ride over his legal difficulties, has worked pretty hard at it.
This has been the reverse of what happened in Zimbabwe, where the country’s leaders only spoke to their own media outlets and no-one else. There hasn’t been any kind of relationship between Zanu-PF and the independent media for years. Mugabe’s only taste of independent media organisations has been his once-a-decade stint on CNN or the BBC.
But the fact is that for the organisation that was once the world’s media darling, the ANC is finding it tough going in power. Of course, that is to be expected, the longer it continues in government, the harder it will be. And of course, like so many politicians around the world, once they’ve had a taste of power, they’d like to keep it forever, thank you very much. And, don't forget, the urge for control is in its DNA.
These days the ANC has a grip on most of the levers of power: It appoints people to just about any position that matters, from the national director of public prosecutions, to the public protector to the head of the Human Rights Commission. Never mind the President and his ministers. But the one thing it just has not been able to call to heel is the media.
At the very core of this new bill is the very same approach that ended with the ANC national working committee deciding it could press charges against Zwelinzima Vavi. It is about a group of hard-core politicians who are not interested in playing the game anymore. They have the power and it is about time they scorch some earth.
Helen Zille is fond of asking journalists how frustrating it must be for them to break big stories about corruption, the abuse of power, nepotism and the like, and to find that they are not stories a day later. Her argument is that in a normal society, where the ruling party has even the smallest chance of losing the next election, the appointment of Menzi Simelane would simply never happen, or if it did, would be such a big scandal that the government of the day could fall the next day. Here in South Africa we know the media is not that powerful. It can scream and shout and dance on its head, but nothing will change. So what is the ANC so worried about? It’s not as if the media really changes anything in this country.
A very important part of the equation is the cultural aspect to media-ANC relationship. South African media tries to act almost on a first-world basis, as it would in the UK or the US, while existing in what is really a third-world country. This means journalists here expect politicians to deliver, infrastructure to be maintained and government departments to act in the interests of the people and not only the groups of chosen ones. This is a country where bad things happen to people on a daily basis, and then are reported constantly. It’s not like Zambia where the media is much smaller, and has lower expectations of its government. As a result, as an ANC member, it really must feel that journalists are out to get you, all the time. That paranoia must be quite something.
Then there are the times when the media, in the ANC’s view, crosses a line. As journalists, we will defend to the death the Sunday Times’ decision to publish its story about Manto Tshabala-Msimang’s alleged drinking habits while in hospital. It was in the public interest, as the recipient of a new liver. But many people will have been shocked to the core by how it was covered. By how it looked as though she was being insulted. This is one of those areas where the culture in which you were brought up really matters. Mlungus with a healthy disrespect for politicians laugh and move on. But other people don’t. They cannot believe that newspapers can behave in this way, will take a person who gave up her life for their struggle, and poke fun at her, make public intimate details about her. Think of it as someone publishing, in intimate physical detail, the worst moment of your marriage. For them, it’s that kind of feeling.
Then marry that feeling with legal incompetence. Where someone who is drafting laws for Parliament really doesn’t know what they’re doing. Add a dash of MPs who are even worse, who don’t seem to have read it, and you have the recipe for a legal disaster. And yet, we shouldn’t be surprised at the ignorance of some MPs. We’ve seen it all before. There is something about the Parliamentary Precinct that breeds ignorance of the real society. Where people spend more on clothes than some families spend on food for a month. (Read Pierre de Vos's angry and depressing account of the parliamentary debate over the Information Bill)
We are absolutely right to be so worried about this new Information Bill. But there are deeper trends underlying it that are equally worrying. The press ombudsman is simply not strong enough, and media are being irresponsible from time to time. Crucially, the media does not criticise itself enough; this gentlemen’s agreement that one does not criticise the decision of a competitor must end. We owe it to our society to be more vocal in the criticism of ourselves. This bill is not just the result of any feeling on the part of the ANC, it’s also because journalists are sometimes unnecessarily rude and insulting, when a point can be made much more elegantly without the spittle flying.
This bill may be passed, or it may not. Several times we’ve seen bills as bad as this relating to other issues being stopped at the last minute. That could happen again. If it doesn’t, well, Gilbert Marcus better prepare himself, because it’s going to be a long fight through the legal system. Because, in the end, information wants to be free. And so do journalists.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Photo by Valerie Everett.