Press freedom in a time of rising authoritarianism
- Vashna Jagarnath
- 20 Mar 2017 01:00 (South Africa)
Authoritarian politics, including fascism, does not grow out of one evil individual with inexplicable power. Authoritarianism grows out of consistent work by groups of people (who could well be in the minority, at first) gaining power by stoking the flames of fear and hatred, scapegoating vulnerable minorities, offering alienated young men a sense of power and using fear as a tool to silence people into submission. As Hannah Arendt stressed in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarianism grows out of reactionary movement. It is at its most dangerous when it is a popular project.
A variety of tools are used to create a climate of repression and fear, and to rally people behind authoritarian or fascist politics. The media, often vital to liberatory politics, is always a key target of any authoritarian project. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazi Party only owned 3% of the German media. It immediately began a project to take control of all media spaces, from radio, to live broadcast and print media. The Franz Eher publishing house controlled by senior Nazi officials was able to buy up control of most of German media, and to use the media as a way to silence critiques and to spread what, these days, we call, with a nod to Donald Trump, “alternative facts”. The media projects to suffer the most were those allied to communist and social democratic politics. Their presses were simply plundered and their equipment and premises handed over to the Nazi Party and its various cronies.
These overt attempts to smash any critical media were not directly challenged with sufficient resolve by the German people. The social democrats and the communists were divided. The authoritarianism of the Nazis escalated into the propaganda machine run by Goebbels, violent repression, concentration camps, war and mass murder.
In much of the world there is a semblance of democracy because the state runs elections every four or five years. But democracy is about much more than periodic elections and, as anyone from Zimbabwe, India or Russia will tell you, there can be periodic elections and serious authoritarianism at the same time.
Authoritarianism, and even fascism, is on the rise globally. Not that long ago it was common to read articles that saw the BRICS as the basis for a new and more just world order. Today Brazil, Russian and India are all run by right-wing regimes. China remains a highly authoritarian society and Zuma and his lackeys clearly aspire to a much more authoritarian order.
The movement of the new authoritarianism from the periphery to the centre, most worryingly in the form of Donald Trump and his fascist adviser Steve Bannon, has led many to try to make sense of the present by thinking through the lessons of the 1930s. When we examine a few concrete examples, the similarities become chillingly apparent. This is not just a matter of Trump, Modi or Le Pen. There are also disturbing examples of the new authoritarianism that are much closer to home.
The overt repression of The Post newspaper in Zambia, and its founder Dr Fred M’membe, is just one concrete example. Dr M’membe is a globally recognised champion of press freedom and a multi-award-winning journalist. He has frequently faced harassment from Zambian state authorities over many years, including the current ruling political party, the Patriotic Front (PF). Over the years the Zambian state, in its various forms, has tried to silence M’membe through the courts, violence, harassment, imprisonment and the detainment of his family. In 2015 President Edgar Lungu, a ruthless and corrupt man, said:
“I want to tell Fred M’membe that I have thrown away the lid. The battle lines have been drawn, but the truth is that Fred cannot fight me because I am Head of State. If he wants to fight me, let him fight me. But let’s be fair; he has the power of the newspaper, I don’t have. But the truth is that M’membe cannot fight me because I am Head of State… Alefwayafye ukwakufwila (he is looking for death), I will not close your newspaper, shamwari (my friend), but I will take you on.”
Over the last year Lungu has seized the property of The Post and rendered its functioning impossible. Yet M’membe continued to publish a daily newspaper from his garage, now under the name Mast, under these difficult and at times life threatening conditions. On February 16, 2017 the Zambian state invaded M’membe’s house with armed military force, seized his press, arrested his wife, intimidated journalists and placed the rest of his family, including children, under house arrest. As I write this, his house is still under police guard.
In South Africa we are not facing the same levels of overt media repression that M’membe and the journalists of Zambia have had to face, and continue to face. However, Zuma has managed, through the appointment of blindly loyal individuals, to capture the public broadcasting apparatus and radically curtail its democratic potential. And of course the gluttonously greedy Guptas, with their media projects – equally propagandistic – have received constant state support.
At the same time there are various covert measures to replace free and rational discussion with propaganda in support of Zuma’s insatiably corrupt project. We don’t have the SS showing up in their jackboots to curtail the expression of independent opinion. But, as in India and Russia, we have organised and subsidised online trolling, alternative facts, fake websites and the public defamation and harassment of people who are seen to be critical of Zuma. On occasions some of the slander produced via this project, much of which is widely taken to be connected to the notorious Bell Pottinger PR firm, has made its way into the mainstream media, as well as the academy.
This kind of thuggish approach to debate is not solely an online phenomenon. Some of the students who have taken to shutting down public discussions at universities are directly linked to pro-Zuma/Gupta front organisations like Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First. This is in line with global trends. In India the thugs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from their military wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), routinely violently break up meetings and discussions that do not fit their fascist vision of India. This has included breaking up discussions at universities and harassing left-wing students and academics that are critical of the fascist regime in India.
Zuma has not yet turned to the kind of direct attack on media freedom that we have seen in Zambia or, say, Russia. But he is certainly engaged in the production of propaganda that attempts to poison the well of free and rational discussion.
It is vital that we resist Zuma’s attempts to weaken our democracy at every turn. It is also vital that we build solidarity with people across the world who are experiencing increasingly repressive states. However, it is disappointing that at a time when the notion of Pan Africanism gets thrown around so much in South Africa there is very little interest in offering solidarity to our own neighbours who are facing repression. Many of those who are so quick to speak of Pan Africanism are not at the Zambian Embassy protesting against this sort of repression. In fact, many of them do not even know about events unfolding in Zambia.
Last week events were held around the country to show much needed solidarity with Palestine. Although BDS South Africa remains a seriously problematic organisation, the principle of solidarity with Palestine remains vitally important. But where were the week-long events to show solidarity with the Zambian people, with the journalists of The Post, and with Fred M’membe? Numsa have been an important exception in this regard. They have consistently called the Zambian state to account for its repression and are planning a series of solidarity events, including protests at the Zambian embassy.
The much bandied-about quote by Edmund Burke from the 18th century that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, is correct to an extent. However, we need to urgently understand that evil does not only triumph when good women and men do nothing. But it is precisely when ordinary women and men begin to actively embrace reactionary forms of politics that society faces its greatest dangers. These are dangerous times and we need to stand up, as clearly and resolutely as we can, against the new authoritarianism here and abroad. In the immediate, one important step is to resist Zuma’s attempts to poison our public sphere. Another is to build solidarity with the Zambian journalists of the Post who continue to face serious repression. DM