There are a thousand good reasons why the Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal are insidious, dangerous, and damaging to our democracy. We all know them. And that's the problem: "we".
All the necessary arguments about press freedom have been made. Everything that needs to be said about proposed laws to make government information secret, and to make journalists accountable to politicians, has been said. The threat posed to the media as a key constitutional safeguard of freedom has been clearly explained.
In The Daily Maverick, deputy editor Phillip de Wet has written perceptively and provocatively on President Jacob Zuma’s letter about the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal. Publisher and editor Branko Brkic masterfully dissected the way the ANC uses the rhetoric of demagogues and tyrants to make people believe the fiction that an unrestricted media is dangerous to the national interest and abusive of individual dignity. If you haven’t read them, do so now.
Leading newspapers and influential blogs are full of stories about the issue. Most, like this editorial in the Mail & Guardian, this speech by Mamphela Ramphele, and this opinion from constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos, are thoughtful, powerful appeals to wake up to a dangerous reality that threatens our hard-won liberty. If you haven’t read them, do so now.
They are correct. A bill that permits almost anyone in a government or parastatal leadership position to classify information on broad grounds is a legal cloak for corruption. There is a fundamental conflict in the notion of a media watchdog body appointed by the very same politicians the media should keep answerable to the public.
The ANC keeps repeating that its intention is not to cover up corruption, or control the media. There are many reasons to doubt this; not least the abolition of the Scorpions and the recent warrantless arrest of Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika. But let us assume that it is true.
In April this year, my column entitled The Darkness of Africa highlighted proposed media laws in Uganda as a dangerous precedent for South Africa and the rest of the continent.
In it, I quoted former US president Lyndon B Johnson, who responded to the assertion of honourable intent quite plainly: “You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered.”
Marc Wilson, a reader commenting on De Wet’s article, made the same point as follows: “The one simple arrow that shoots straight to the heart of the ANC’s argument is this: the test of a good law is whether the lawmaker would be comfortable with the law in another party’s hands. Would the ANC be happy if the proposed media laws were used by the DA, or even the old NP?”
Some people voice their opposition to these laws with intelligence and gravitas. Many more limit their protests to puerile activism, proposing toothless t-shirt slogans and futile online petitions.
But we all argue, we rail against authoritarianism, and we assert our moral rights. Meanwhile, the people gathered to witness the release of Mzilikazi wa Afrika yell, “Traitor!”
Those people are not among the “we” who discuss this. They do not read the Mail & Guardian, or The Daily Maverick. What they see is the party of the people, their beloved ANC, ranged in opposition to the media of the wealthy, liberal elite. What side do you think they’ll take, witnessing the bombastic antagonism of the press?
They listen to the radio, and if they read at all they probably read the Daily Sun.
Why, then, does the Auckland Park Declaration contain only print media names? Did broadcasters decline to participate?
Editors may habitually dismiss populist tabloids as shallow and irrelevant to important media issues, but a blank front page in the Daily Sun – by far the country’s biggest daily newspaper – would mean more than the high-minded outrage of all the other publications put together.
It is the ANC’s constituency, the working classes and the unemployed, who must be convinced that this fight is not about the right of elites to gripe and moan about the ANC.
They, the voting majority, need to understand that the press is the bastion that defends ordinary people against abuse of power and lack of service delivery by the government.
They need to understand that this “debate”, as the ANC insists on calling it, is about whether or not the people’s press have the legal right to hold elected officials accountable to the people who elected them.
They must be convinced that their hard-won freedom is under threat, from laws that look and feel exactly like Apartheid’s weapons of oppression.
During that dark era, grassroots organisations led the fight by educating the masses about the policies and laws that denied them their rights. That kind of public awareness campaign is sorely lacking in this fight about press freedom.
Sadly, this is about “us” and “them”, yes.
The media, much like the official opposition, has in sixteen years of democracy failed to unite the country behind it. It makes eloquent arguments and reasoned appeals, but much of the time it talks to itself or to a small intellectual elite. In perception, and too often as a matter of fact, it remains the solipsistic voice of the educated and the rich. It talks to people who understand pedantic words like “solipsistic” and “pedantic”.
That is why the media will lose this battle.
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.