Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane 30 August 2010

Is the beloved country really that naïve?

We’ve succumbed to the oldest political trick in the book: When things go wrong, kick the cat.

There is a palpable sense of anger against the media from sectors of the public. This anger may not stem from the same root causes that are driving the ANC’s broadside against a free press, but it exists nonetheless. The ruling party is smart enough to conflate issues to make the public believe that the press is the enemy and, therefore, must be vanquished. When the people eventually wake up to what’s really ruining the country, it may be too late.

We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the intentions of those who seek to impose a  media appeals tribunal are good. Behind all the propaganda, the ANC wants one thing: the ability to control what gets printed. Coupled with the Protection of Information Bill, it will be able to exert an enormous amount of influence on what newspapers report, and more importantly, what they don’t report on.

But we, the people, choose to believe that the reason why the ANC wants a statutory and controlled media appeals tribunal is because newspapers are publishing libellous stories that ruin people’s lives. The media are being controlled by greedy capitalists in London. The media aren’t supporting transformation. The media stand in the way of equal opportunities for all. The media are neo-colonialist, Afro-pessimists.

Once the media are brought to book, everything will be alright.

Are we really that naïve?

The truth is, we don’t understand the true implications of the freedom of expression. We don’t like the fact that it allows someone to disrespect an “elder”. Freedom of expression allows someone to disagree, and we don’t enjoy that. Dissent and disagreement spoil the Rainbow Nation. It spoils our “open and democratic society”. We don’t understand democracy in this country, and what it entails.

Democracy isn’t as cute as we had first thought. Solutions don’t come as quickly as we’d like. Rebuilding a nation is a slow and arduous job, which doesn’t make for spectacular TV, so we become frustrated.

Let’s not even mention the fact that the stewards of this country are not doing a spectacularly brilliant job of running things.

And thus we turn to populism.

White farmers, land owners, mining companies, and now the media are being blamed for the government’s cock-ups. I’ve attended a few debates on the issue of media freedom, and I hear the same arguments at each – people who’ve lost their jobs due to bad reporting, media bowing to the demands of their British overlords, editors being browbeaten by racist journalists, stories that are “un-African” and, therefore, anti-transformation. Vague accusations that all imply the same thing – this Shangri-La we want is but a whisper away, if only the media would play along and do as they’re told.

The ANC is quite happy to exploit these feelings for its own gains. And once the media is vanquished, it’ll blame the next convenient group for the country’s problems.

Here’s the really sad part: There are examples of this phenomenon all over the world, and we don’t need first-hand experience in ruining a country to realise that populist anger isn’t a solution.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is fast running out of groups to blame for his country’s sluggish economy. A few years ago, it was all America’s fault. The independent judiciary has also been duly blamed and brought under his heel. Of late, he’s turned on investment bankers, banning trading in the Venezuelan currency, as well as public debt. Chavez blames private brokers for Venezuela’s inflationary and currency difficulties.

In Uganda, the courts have just thrown out a law which was cynically calculated to outlaw government dissent in the newspapers under the broad umbrella term of sedition.

The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hugely unpopular, has been tainted with the aura of corruption and also faces the spectacle of a poorly-performing economy. His government’s answer to all of this was to deport hundreds of Roma over the last few weeks, who are blamed for taking jobs. It’s crude, but people are losing jobs and looking for someone to blame…

They’ve just had elections Down Under, and the country faces its first hung parliament in decades. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s opponent ran partly on an anti-immigrant bill.

In South Africa, it’s the media. It truly chills me that people absolutely believe that a free media is a problem, and that trampling all over the Constitution is the answer.

We can’t possibly be that stupid. Surely not?


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