Defend Truth


Not popping the cork on press freedom yet

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

World Press Freedom Day is on 3 May and while we might be tempted to bask in the relative freedom our press enjoys, a lot still needs to be done to afford most South Africans the full benefits of a free press.

The explosion of new media, specifically social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter have made the sharing of information easier and quicker than ever – that is undeniable. But unfortunately, the trend across the world has been towards the suppression of press freedom. According to a study by Freedom House, an organisation that works to promote democracy and freedom, the measure of press freedom around the world has been falling for eight years in a row now.

The most infamous recent example has been Google’s much-publicised exit from China, after the authorities there refused to relax censorship laws. A little closer to home, a radio station in Uganda was forced to issue an apology to President Yoweri Museveni, after hosting an opposition party leader. Similar stories emerge from other African countries such as Egypt and Kenya. Journalists are being kidnapped and murdered in Mexico. In Honduras and Venezuela it’s the state that’s doing the arresting and jailing. It just goes on and on.

We’re very fortunate in this country. But we’d be fools to think that all is well.

Since the advent of democracy, we’ve enjoyed a free press, but the ruling party has displayed a growing unease with the notion of an unfettered press. The ANC Youth League’s brazen attempts to intimidate journalists have been widely documented. So has the eviction of a BBC journalist from a press conference by the Youth League’s president Julius Malema.

Given that we’re a young democracy, it is perhaps excusable that political matters take precedence in the press. But there are so many pressing issues that go unreported. Did you know that the practice of ukuthwala (forced marriage) still occurs? Yet we never hear about these things.

The truth is, reporting is done largely through the prism of white middle-class opulence (that makes me sound like a spokesperson for the ANCYL, but it’s a valid point nonetheless). For example, the municipal workers’ union went on strike last week and the biggest concern seemed to be the uncollected refuse in the suburbs. Another example is the phenomenon that is Julius Malema. Almost every article on him views him in an extremely negative light, and yet he continues to grow in influence. There is a segment of South Africa that finds him appealing, yet we’re not hearing their side of the story. Large segments of the population have no voice in the media. The poor, for instance, are always spoken for in South Africa. We need to have alternative perspectives.

Most importantly, in a time of increasing restrictions on the media, South Africans need to understand the importance of freedom of expression, they need to exercise that freedom to discuss issues and to voice opinions. Our media literacy is woefully low, and the tabloids brutally exploit that fact with their daily rehashes of sensationalist crime stories. Without critical literacy among people reading the news, there’s little point in having freedom of expression, at least from a democratic point of view.

The good news is that the reach of the Internet in South Africa, though painfully low, is increasing. Not only will more people be able to access information, they’ll gain access to social media tools such as blogging. Those unheard voices will be able to speak out at last.

So, even as we take a moment to congratulate ourselves on having a relatively free press, we have to recognise that it takes precious little to snuff out that little flame. We may thank our lucky stars that things aren’t as bad as they are in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt or Somalia, but we will definitely head in that direction if we don’t utilise the opportunities we have. Freedom of the press has become more than just a constitutionally enshrined right. In these trying times, it has become a responsibility.


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