Ray Joseph: South Africans voice anger at country’s media environment

South African-based Right2Know Campaign is hosting a series of conferences to explore how the country’s media environment can be improved. Read the report: Media Transformation & the Right to Communicate

The media does not care about us, they never report things relevant to us and papers are only interested if there is bad news about us, the elderly, gap-toothed man says.

The digital revolution is also passing his community by, he adds. His deeply lined face and brow offer testimony to his day-to-day battle to eke out a life in the “temporary relocation area” of Blikkiesdorp, where many of Cape Town’s disenfranchised have washed up.

“Internet is expensive and doesn’t work well there, and there’s nothing in the papers that talks to us and about our struggle and lives. It’s like we don’t exist.”

The man is an “ordinary citizen” who took part in last weekend’s Cape Town leg of a countrywide series of Media Transformation and Right to Communicate summits organised by the Right2Know Campaign.

“As inequality deepens and social cohesion falters, South Africa needs a media that can offer expression to the full range of voices and facilitate the substantive and complex debates about the social and economic future of the country,” says Mark Weinberg, national coordinator of R2K.

Issues on the agenda include the need for a free and diverse press, the concentration of ownership of South Africa’s media in the hands of four dominant players and the ongoing political interference in the affairs of the SABC, as the ANC tightens its control of the state broadcaster. Participants also voiced concerns at the slow pace of South Africa’s transition to digital terrestrial TV, which will free up bandwidth for high-speed internet and new independent radio and TV stations.

During one session, a community journalist from one of Cape Town’s poorest townships angrily berated the big media houses and called on his “comrades” to march on their offices to “force” them to fund smaller, struggling independent media. Around the room, I noted many others nodding in agreement.

The anger at a perceived lack of transformation in the country’s media is fueled by the fact that the print media is still largely dominated by a handful of powerful companies, even though the landscape has shifted since the birth of a new, democratic South Africa in 1994. The anger was not only aimed at big media houses which stand accused of using predatory pricing tactics to force smaller, less well-resourced outlets out of business.

Participants also had their sights firmly set on government and its failure to support independent community print and radio. Often the main source of income for some small media is paid-for government advertorial, another participant pointed out. The result is that recipients of this revenue are reluctant to rock the boat and report critical stories about government for fear of losing this vital income.

The summits come against the backdrop of a new push by the government to introduce a Media Appeals Tribunal amidst ongoing reporting by South African media on corruption and the squandering of taxpayer money as the economy contracts, raising fears of recession.

William Bird, the head of Media Monitoring Africa says the Media Appeals Tribunal “is bad because, aside from the potential limitations to freedom of expression, it simply won’t address the core concerns over the quality of news content, diversity, transformation and what some perceive as overly negative coverage”.

As a journalist, I was often taken aback during the course of the summit at the depth of anger and isolation felt by ordinary people, especially those from poor communities who felt the media serves the rich and that they are denied a voice.

Nevertheless, I left the summit feeling hopeful. The passion of the man from Blikkiesdorp and others like him and their determination to take the fight to big media and government help remind me that while South Africa may have problems, our democracy remains strong and robust.

This column was posted on 26 November 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

“Secrets kill democracy” — Activists protest oppressive secrecy bill

South Africa’s Right2Know Campaign (R2K) is “Camping out for Openness” outside parliament in Cape Town this week as deliberations over the draconian Protection of State Information Bill draw to a close.

The National Council of Provinces, the second house of parliament, is due to adopt the bill by the end of November. The bill is ostensibly aimed at instituting a long-overdue system to regulate access to government documents.

However, despite persistent appeals from, among others, luminaries such as Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, the Secrecy Bill’s system of classification and declassification has not been couched in the country’s constitutional commitment to an open democracy and the free flow of information.

Instead it opens the door to the over-classification of state information while instituting harsh punishments for the possession of classified information, undermining basic citizenship rights.

Pressure from civil society, led by the R2K Campaign, produced limited concessions this year. One of the most pertinent demands was to include a public interest defence clause to ameliorate the anti-democratic effects of the bill. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) eventually conceded by allowing a clause enabling a public interest defence, but only if the disclosure revealed criminal activity. This has been criticised as an unreasonably high threshold.

Right2Know March in Pretoria, September 2012. Jordi Matas | Demotix

Right2Know march in Pretoria, South Africa, September 2012. Jordi Matas | Demotix

The ANC this month backtracked on two other key concessions, as pressure from state security minister Siyabonga Cwele on ANC parliamentarians seemingly paid off:

  • The Secrecy Bill at first took precedence over the Promotion of Access of Information Act (PAIA). PAIA allows citizens to request information from government agencies. The ANC then agreed to an amendment that would give PAIA precedence. This decision was again overturned after pressure from Cwele. Activists argue that allowing the Secrecy Bill to trump PAIA is unconstitutional, as PAIA is prescribed by the constitution and has to remain the supreme law in access to information matters.
  • A five-year sentence for disclosing classified information has been reintroduced after the ANC agreed to have it removed. This will actively discourage whistleblowers in the civil service from coming forward with information revealing corruption.

Cwele’s predecessor, Ronnie Kasrils, this week  addressed the R2K camp outside parliament, distancing himself from what he deemed the “devious” and “toxic” bill. While he was minister, he withdrew the 2008 version of the bill after a similar outcry about its lack of constitutionality.

According to R2K, the other remaining problems with the Secrecy Bill include:

  • It criminalises citizens instead of holding to account civil servants who are responsible for keeping secrets.
  • A whistleblower, journalist or activist disclosing classified information with the purpose of revealing corruption or other criminal activity can still be prosecuted under the “espionage” and related offences clauses to avoid them invoking the limited public interest defence.
  • Persons in possession of classified state information face draconian jail terms of up to 25 years.
  • The bill’s procedure to apply for the declassification of information conflicts with PAIA, while the newly created Classification Review Panel is not sufficiently independent:  “The simple possession of classified information appears to be illegal even pending a request for declassification and access.”
  • Someone can be prosecuted for “espionage”, “receiving state information unlawfully” (to benefit a foreign state), and “hostile activity” even without proof that the accused intended to benefit a foreign state or hostile group or prejudice national security — only that the accused knew this would be a “direct or indirect” result.
  • Information classified under apartheid law and policies that may be counter to the constitution remain classified, pending a review for which no time limit is set.

Parliament’s engagement with the bill, which started in July 2010, has been characterised by Orwellian “doublethink”, as exemplified in Cwele’s declaration that “protect(ing) sensitive information … is the oil that lubricates our democracy and we have no intention — not today, not ever — to undermine the freedom we struggled and sacrificed for all these years”.

R2K has vowed to continue pressuring parliamentarians to replace the Secrecy Bill with a law “that genuinely reflects a just balance between the public’s right to know and [the] government’s need to protect limited state information”.

Christi van der Westhuizen is Index on Censorship’s new South Africa correspondent

More on this story:

South Africa’s Secrecy Bill: A threat to press freedom or an awakening?