Defend Truth


Freedom’s just another word for everything left to lose


Chris Roper is deputy director of Code for Africa, a director of the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting, and most recently held the position of editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. He was founding portal manager of Tiscali World Online, portal manager for MWEB, and Editor-in-Chief at He was a Knight Fellow for the ICFJ from 2015 - 2019.

In this age when information flows internationally, it’s not enough for your country’s press to be free; it has to be free around the world.

Two stats for you, one to make you happy, one to make you scared. Of the 180 countries ranked by the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, South Africa is number 28. Yay for us. Despite the gross attempts at Media Capture™ by the Guptas and their 24-hour Comedy News Channel, and by Mandela’s Dr Survè and his laughingly named Independent Media (at least the guy has a sense of humour), and despite our government’s corrupt channelling of millions in state advertising away from legitimate newspapers and into the Zuptas’ bank accounts, we still have a press that’s ranked as more free than countries like the US (45), the UK (40), and Uganda (117).

The second stat should, however, give you pause for thought. Internet freedom in the world has declined for the eighth consecutive year. And unfortunately, in this age when “free” press also refers to the fact that you cheap sods refuse to pay for news, the internet and media are pretty much the same thing.

To misquote a Gogol Bordello song, “We think we’re free locally, but we can be fucked globally.” In this age when information flows internationally, it’s not enough for your country’s press to be free, it has to be free around the world. Why is that, you ask? Thank you for that question, I’m glad you asked, as my American friends always say to me when they’re stalling.

If our State Capture cretins had only been more, I don’t know… more Mark Zuckerberg than Hlaudi Motsoeneng about things, they might have got away with it. If only they’d realised that having massively incompetent people running their propaganda campaigns on dying media platforms was stupid, and spent a fraction of the money on proper control of the internet, we might be in a very different place now.

A place like Nigeria, for example, where the Nigerian army has just justified killing around 40 people by posting a video on their Twitter account. Entitled “Please Watch and Make Your Deductions”, it shows a recent Trump speech in which he said rocks would be considered firearms if thrown towards the American military.

Or a place like Tanzania, where bloggers have to first establish a company, and then pay a licensing fee of up to $900, and where the government can cancel your permit if you publish “content that ‘causes annoyance’ or leads to ‘public disorder’”. Even worse, for freedom of speech, is that anonymous use of the internet is also prohibited.

The fact is, the internet is a wonderful gift to governments around the world (and for the purpose of this column, all governments are defined as existing to restrict the freedoms of their citizens). With the internet, you can monitor much more easily what people are doing, and even better, you can much more easily dispense propaganda and disinformation. For governments, every Twitter stream is their very own Nuremberg rally, and every Instagram feed their own potential Hollywood (to name just two excellent examples of pre-internet propaganda tools).

Another good stat/bad stat moment. Freedom House’s most recent Freedom on the Net research (2017) shows that 36% of the global internet population is Not Free, 28% is Partly Free, and only 23% can be categorised as Free (with 13% not assessed). South Africa is in the 23% of the world with freedom on the net. Yay for us, etc. But the same report also shows that “for the third consecutive year, China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom”.

And this is one of the reasons we need to maintain our vigilance when it comes to South Africa’s freedoms. The Freedom on the Net report shows that “China is by far the most effective censor of the internet, and far from retreating, is exporting its model around the world.”

China is selling its repressive technologies, such as mobile and VPN blocking and surveillance systems, and providing training in censorship, misinformation and surveillance to regimes who don’t want their citizens to have access to a free internet, as well as peddling anti-democracy notions such as internet sovereignty, which basically means that nations would have total control over an internet defined by the country’s borders. (So far, “57 countries, from European democracies to Central Asian autocracies” have bought telecom infrastructure and/or AI surveillance tools from China, “or attended or hosted trainings by Chinese censors and propaganda operatives”.

We don’t want to succumb to Sinophobia. There are other threats to internet freedoms in Africa, for example from Trump’s America, the new marketing arm of repressive regimes everywhere. But we do have to be very careful to monitor our government’s relationship with China, especially as the last cockroaches of State Capture fight to retain their scuttling rights in the midden. Guess which revered South African president is credited with cementing South Africa’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party? Yes, good guess: Jacob Zuma.

On a visit to China in 2008 Zuma asked the CPC to provide leadership training to the ANC. It was agreed that, until the ANC’s own school is established, it will send its leaders for political education tours in China. Many current and former leaders have been on this pilgrimage — at least 300, was one of the recent estimates.”

Freedom’s just another word for everything left to lose,” as someone once almost sang. Random examples, which are still being fought by civil rights groups: our governing party is still panting at the bit (sic) to get their Secrecy Bill passed, and the National Assembly has approved the Internet Censorship Bill, which aims to give control over our internet content to the Film and Publications Board, a body so singularly unsuited to understanding the internet that they think they can force publishers to submit content to be classified before publication. News24 would have to change their pay-off line from “Breaking News: Now”, to “Breaking News: As Soon As the FPB Answers Our Email.”

We need to be vigilant about our freedoms. If the autocratic ambitions harboured by many African governments ever successfully mate with the repressive regime-building of surveillance states such as China, we’re going to be sucked into a bloody battle to preserve democratic freedoms. DM


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