Media, Politics

Analysis: The media freedom debate’s new, powerful voice

Analysis: The media freedom debate’s new, powerful voice

For the first time since the end of the Apartheid an incumbent US ambassador to South Africa has spoken out on a domestic controversy – the contentious media freedom proposals – and his words, while diplomatically couched, talk about the deep crisis this country is hurtling toward.

Woody Allen once said that 90% of life is just showing up. There was a time, say a quarter of a century ago, during the last decade of the Cold War (or apartheid, for that matter), when an American ambassador could make some news, get his or her picture in the papers and draw a big crowd just by making an appearance. An ambassador would make some obvious or anodyne remarks about truth and justice, goodness and light, the really delicious local foods and beverages, and the glorious local singing and dancing. He’d get a round of applause and then he would return to the serious business of being a proconsul for the American colossus.

But more recently, as the top representative of the world’s only remaining superpower, one recent American ambassador in South Africa made his biggest news from complaining about not receiving enough police protection for his already well-guarded residence and that South African senior officials wouldn’t take his calls. By that point, the US-South African relationship had become more than prickly – and it was moving in the direction of becoming distinctly dysfunctional. Fortunately, Donald Gips has had the great good luck – or careful foresight – to arrive in South Africa a year ago, having been appointed Barack Obama’s representative here, once Obama had replaced George W Bush and Jacob Zuma had replaced Thabo Mbeki.

Speaking on Wednesday at the SA Institute of International Affairs headquarters in Johannesburg, ambassador Gips demonstrated his recognition that for American ambassadors, simply showing up (or just complaining) was insufficient to make a useful impact.

In his speech, Gips first rounded up the usual suspects that bring the two nations together or pose collective challenges. But, in what seems to have been a particularly well-timed intervention, Gips weighed in on what may well be the hottest of hot buttons in South Africa at the moment (except for a little matter of a spreading national public sector strike). This would be the looming threat to freedom of expression and a collateral restriction on access to information being punted by the ruling African National Congress, and now opposed by a growing array of media organisations, business coalitions, NGOs and legal associations. Now  hold that thought for just a moment.

As required, Gips naturally pointed to growing cooperation in the fight against HIV/Aids, even as he tried to allay a public gnashing of teeth by HIV/Aids NGOs that the US was backtracking on its funding commitments. Gips noted that there is actually a modest up-tick in financial support from the US beyond a yearly total of about R4 billion, plus a once-off bump of more than R850 million, despite some heavy weather in America’s own financial and budgetary circumstances.

As he must, Gips also said the US and South Africa were now working more closely than ever on  “global issues such as climate change and nuclear proliferation to critical regional issues, such as improving health care and food security, increasing intra-Africa trade, and stabilising trouble spots and promoting democracy” and that he hopes to find ways to bring American experience to help South Africa cope with the crucial challenges of improving education and creating jobs.

Gips added:

“Since coming here I am continually struck by the fact that we are dealing with many of the same issues, concerns and challenges that face South Africa: How do we improve education? How do we create jobs? How do we solve the healthcare problem? How do we support the institutions of democracy and a free press? We share these issues and while many of the problems are more extreme here because of the history of apartheid, we have much to learn from each other as we seek to improve the lives of our citizens. The richness of the relationship between the two countries is deep, and the foundation is strong.”

But Gips also reached back to the lodestone of Barack Obama’s 2009 Ghana speech to underscore a message Obama has been making throughout his public life: The future of Africa is up to Africans themselves; that individual Africans must step up and grasp responsibility for their own destiny through acts of self-reliance. In his speeches and books Obama has, in turn, been channelling a deep strain in American philosophy that first found formal expression more than 150 years ago in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Self Reliance”. Of course, this kind of message has to be made in an environment where sources for new foreign funding are few and far between.

Gips’, and Obama’s, message make it clear that it is imperative the continent grow itself through entrepreneurial efforts and trade, taking advantage of opportunities and pulling down the restrictions on intra-Africa trade. Do that, Gips was saying, and foreign investors will see a continent of a billion potential consumers rather than a mess of complicated barriers to trade.

Gips used his time with business leaders, journalists, diplomats and others to make it clear that national success comes from bringing a clear national commitment from government, business and private citizens to bear on the country’s national challenges and opportunities. He said, “South Africa’s wildly successful hosting of the World Cup showed exactly what happens when individuals step up, governments work in partnership with average citizens, businesses and non-governmental organisations do their part.” Gips added “It is in the United States’ strategic interest for South Africa to succeed in its historic transformation from apartheid to a world leader, where all South Africans share in the nation’s prosperity and economic opportunity.”

But these good words were really just the opening act for the headliner – the drum roll before the entry.  And that, of course, was his attention to a growing, though still potential, threat to a free press and freedom of expression. Gips put down a real marker here – something not always the norm in the careful nuanced world of diplomat-speak – and The Daily Maverick believes readers should look at Gips’ words on this topic at some length to get the full flavour of his take on the topic.

In making such a statement, Gips (and America) has now thrown its weight behind the growing body of critics of the ANC’s proposed media tribunal and Protection of Information Act. This was a particularly timely moment – South Africa has had what is clearly the international equivalent of a bad-hair day over these proposals. After two months of the global media’s version of “kiss kiss, hug hug, love love” for South Africa during the World Cup, South Africa has now been hit by the international media herd’s version of a trifecta: confusion and chaos in the mining sector, still more charges of corruption at high levels, and now the punted media tribunal and access to information restrictions.

Gips told his audience, South Africa’s media, the government and the ANC:

“America’s founders recognised that the best way to fight corruption and promote democracy in their new nation was through a free press…. We believe that, at the most basic level, governments are accountable to citizens, and democracy requires those citizens to make choices. A free press provides the information that permits the public to make informed choices.

“Just as America’s founders were concerned about the quality of the media in America’s early days, I also understand the government’s concern about the professionalism of the South African press.  In my conversations with journalists, they themselves recognise that economic pressures have led to lapses and that their internal standards need tightening.  Having served in two White Houses, I know how members of government feel when leaders are attacked by the media, sometimes unfairly.

“However, as President Obama just said…’One of the wonderful things about the United States is that in my position, there are often times when I get frustrated, when I think I know more than some of my critics. Yet, we have institutionalised the notion that those critics have every right to criticise me, no matter how unreasonable I think they may be.’

“I believe the challenge here is to balance that right of criticism with the need for media professionalism and standards for truthful and fair reporting. We note the efforts of the South African media to discuss reforms, such as greatly strengthening the office of the Press Ombudsman and diversifying the membership of the Press Council.

“In the United States, the balance of criticism with fair reporting includes protections of national secrets, but these protections are strictly and clearly defined and articulated. In the United States, ‘national interests’ are issues of national security.

“We believe this balances the public’s need to know, freedom of speech and the protection of national security. Here in South Africa, the media and the government must come together to agree on specific and concrete standards for the management of sensitive information that also guarantee free speech and the right to dissent.”

Words like these obviously didn’t come easy for Gips – it must have been hard to rap those knuckles after a year working to build warm relations with the government and its ruling party. But Gips and his staff (and the US government as a whole), obviously felt it was time to remind South Africa’s government and the ANC that “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” means just that; that South Africa’s international standing and reputation are now at risk from these proposed measures. Speaking on behalf of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe was at the University of Cape Town on Wednesday night as well, replying to criticisms such as Gips’ about the two proposals.

But Gips had, in a sense, already prepared a pre-emptive rebuttal to Mantashe’s comments. Gips quoted deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe from a speech on Tuesday when Motlanthe said, “What is required is really to debate with the full understanding that freedom of expression, freedom of speech, free media, access to information, all these are matters that are enshrined in our Constitution. So we should proceed from that point of departure and debate as calmly as possible rather than to be hysterical about these issues.”

Gips then made the crucial, larger point that South Africa can only be a role model for the continent if it gets this one right. It’s hard to argue with that.

In his Wednesday address, Gips also talked about Zimbabwe – a sometimes contentious issue between the US and South Africa in the past – but he noted that, now

“The United States and South Africa have identical goals for Zimbabwe – we both want a free, fair, prosperous country in which the Zimbabwean people control their own destiny. We also recognise that South Africa has an immediate and very real challenge – Zimbabwe is on your doorstep….We do hold some different views regarding tactics and strategies, but we are in constant dialogue to better understand each other’s point of view. I think that dialogue has improved dramatically and will continue to do so.”

After his formal comments, The Daily Maverick had a chance to speak with Gips about one of America’s own current, contentious freedom of expression issues – that increasingly nasty controversy about the right of Muslim New Yorkers to construct a new mosque and cultural centre a few blocks from the Ground Zero site where the World Trade Centre used to stand. While Gips wouldn’t be drawn into that argument directly, he did agree that sometimes Americans, just like South Africans, could learn to “walk together” a bit more as they sort out the intersection of individual desires and the public space.

By J Brooks Spector

For a sample of the current critique of South Africa in the international media, try stories in the Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal, and CNN, among others. For Gip’s full text, see the US Embassy website.


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