Now that the dust has settled after the new BRICS have been laid and not to be a spoiler amid significant elation, but all these countries besides South Africa have a terrible track record vis-à-vis media freedom. These countries are mainly rogues.
The World Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters without Borders (RSF) every year in May on World Press Freedom Day, considers political, legal, social and technological upheavals.
It measures quite a few specific indicators such as trust in journalism (for example, how much disinformation is spread in a country is now one of the biggest indicators); how free journalists are to report the news; and how many are killed and jailed in 180 countries every year. South Africa shot up from place 35 in 2022 to place 25 in 2023.
Old and new BRICS friends
It is great news that South Africa scores so highly. Its old BRICS’ faithful friends like China (179) – which would be last if it weren’t for North Korea in 180th place – Russia (164), India (161) and Brazil (92) do not come close to us on this freedom index.
The new friends on the bloc are much the same as the old BRICS, except for Argentina in spot 40. The new BRICS have these places: Egypt (166); Saudi Arabia (170); United Arab Emirates (145); Iran (177); and Ethiopia (130).
The knowns: who isn’t for amazing deals, ie free trade agreements which would benefit Africa economically? Who can complain if the Chinese are categorising rooibos tea and our wine as South Africa’s fantastic “celebrity products” of which they want more. We are desperate to see economic growth in our part of the world. And we all know we are not manufacturing enough home-grown goods.
The unknown: But at what cost, now?
Of course, the West is not great: Europeans have been killing Europeans since the time of the Neanderthals and the US is far from a democracy moral saviour: it meets, greets and negotiates over oil prices with the killers of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; it also eagerly awaits the extradition to the US of WikiLeaks whistle-blower Julian Assange, who remains locked up in jail – in London.
Then of course there are the troll farms which could unleash the war dogs on social media, bullying and vilifying journalists as the Guptas did.
But by siding with countries such as China and Russia, and the newly minted BRICS on the bloc – all men in suits too – we may backslide, experience a backlash, instead of being leaders for democracy.
In South Africa we do not jail journalists just because we don’t like what they write, or because they blow the whistle on corruption, attempt to hold power to account, speak truth to power – we all know these watchdog roles in a democracy.
The judiciary has always acted independently and according to the principles of the Constitution when, for example, legal journalist Karyn Maughan gets hauled to court for just doing her job, or when crooked companies try to gag a news organisation (amaBhungane) from publishing.
The world grows authoritarian: Whither South Africa in 2024?
RSF marks South Africa as yellow, meaning satisfactory, along with Canada, Australia, Namibia, France, Portugal and the UK (see the map below). South Africa is not that many points away from the few green (the best) countries, including Norway (ranked 1) Ireland (2) and Denmark (3).
The number of “green” countries has decreased every year, showing the world is moving towards authoritarianism rather than more freedom. Ten years ago, in 2013, 14% of countries were in the good category and now only 4% are. North America does not have one country in green. The world map is now redder than any other colour.
Namibia is number one in Africa, followed by South Africa. According to the index, Egypt ranked second last in Africa and presented as a country with one of the most critically serious conditions in north Africa.
The 2023 report also shows that worldwide, the number of imprisoned journalists has generally risen, from 145 in 2010 to more than 360 in 2022, tallying with statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Egypt ranked among the countries with the most journalists in jail.
They say you can tell who someone is by the company they keep. If South Africa is influenced by its new friends, our democratic gains such as independent media and judiciary, gender and LGBTQI+ equality (eg, gay people can marry, women can be priests, and have abortions), certainly in comparison with these “red” countries since the bad old apartheid days, could be lost. The dust is settled but the cement is not yet dry. So, let’s see.
What could happen in South Africa: Three things to watch out for
Labelling journalists as enemies of the glorious “National Democratic Revolution” and creating media doormats. Starting in 2024, South Africa’s election year, the ANC – in a precarious place of power with the Multiparty Charter to worry about – could start targeting journalists as “enemies of the people” using the rhetoric of the Eastern socialist countries, which sections of the ANC admire so much.
It could start resurrecting its desire for the media appeals tribunal (MAT), a post-publication censorship policy. This MAT resolution is still “on its books” since the Polokwane ANC conference in 2007. The MAT idea is to haul a journalist to Parliament to explain a report or comment piece. I can just hear: “No comrade, no, that’s not cool, com, who do you think you are?”
Secrecy legislation: The President could also sign the Protection of State Information Bill (the “Secrecy Bill”) into an act. A few years ago, he wisely handed it back to constitutional lawyers because it was at odds with the progressive clauses in the Constitution. In other words, the “Secrecy Bill” is not in tandem with current progressive legislation such as PAIA, which ensures transparency and freedom of information for the public.
Weaponising social media: Then of course there are the troll farms which could unleash the war dogs on social media, bullying and vilifying journalists as the Guptas did when they employed Indians (from India). These are the trolls of information disorder. The Guptas had troll farms in India, they may still do, which were attack dogs for journalists, then recently the Russian troll factories of the Wagner Group started.
Read more in Daily Maverick: The Constitution is clear on public interest and transparency, but media are still blocked
These are the possible trends to watch out for. In the meantime, we watch as the dust settles on BRICS. Will there be a change of values? Could South Africa set a good example for human rights with media freedom, an independent judiciary and women’s rights at its core, or could it be influenced by its new rogue friends?
I don’t know about you, but I am worried. I hope I am wrong about all this. DM