South Africans seem unable to escape trying to establish a “hierarchy of rights” whenever one right seems to clash with another. Is Pick ’n Pay’s right freedom of choice and free trade compromised by the right to freedom of expression and the media?
It seems to me there is a serious conflict unfolding right before our eyes – and all dressed up in the sheep’s wool of media or press freedom. Of course, this is a right and freedom I personally hold sacred, but certainly one that isn’t above all others.
My fellow opinionista, Mandy de Waal, recently exhorted us to boycott retail chain, Pick ’n Pay because they barred two publications from their shelves. She argued that Pick ’n Pay’s decision to remove Die Son and Sondag from their shelves was tantamount to censorship, and was a threat to media freedom.
Most of us agree and would support to the death, freedom of the press. But we mustn’t be conned by those who trade under this freedom to support their trade. The media is in part a business. Editors want to sell newspapers, despite the fact that they may also subscribe to the higher call of delivering information to the public.
Let’s consider thought that, by her own admission, my colleague strongly believes in the right to education, but she wouldn’t be calling on us to boycott Pick ‘n Pay because they don’t stock certain brands of school supplies, or do so expensively. I am also certain she believes in every teacher’s right to strike, but if people disagreed with that strike, would we say that our country was in danger because some freedoms were under attack?
There have been times when private citizens and government have gone to court to prevent certain stories or information being published in the media. When these bids fail, they are hailed as victories for media freedom, and when they succeed, alarm bells are sounded about the threats to media freedom. Something is clearly not in balance here.
I agree with Thomas Jefferson, “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” But did he mean there is an obligation on Pick ’n Pay to make sure “every man should receive those papers”? Certainly, if these publications felt strongly enough about their content, they would provide it for free, as does the publication you are currently reading.
It is not unreasonable to assume that Pick ’n Pay, as a corporate citizen – and just as a private one – has the right to choose what they will sell or will not, and has absolutely no obligation to advance any particular freedom, much less information source? Surely every citizen has a right to attempt to stop information about them appearing in the media through the judicial system?
It should be possible to differentiate a defence of our trade or the business that is the media from a defence of the critical freedoms in our Constitution. The blurring of this distinction is threatening the very integrity of these sacred freedoms.
I am suggesting that, because this is such a profitable trade, it has opened us up to the dangers highlighted by the Commission on Freedom of the Press when it held: “The modern press itself is a new phenomenon. Its typical unit is the great agency of mass communication. These agencies can facilitate thought and discussion. They can stifle it …. They can play up or down the news and its significance, foster and feed emotions, create complacent fictions and blind spots, misuse great words and uphold empty slogans.”
It is perhaps time to extend Søren Kiekegaard’s observation that, “People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid”, and add, “People demand freedom of speech to advance their trade”.
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
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