The day the flowers died. Media freedom in our times
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By Ambassador Bheki Gila
Johannesburg - This article seeks to explore the attributes of media freedom within a framework of two parallel postmarks, one being an anniversary we must never forget. The other is the return of a familiar yet dictatorial tendency of a sinister kind, fascism.
For the former, October 19 marks for South Africa’s nominal media freedom day that dark Wednesday in 1977 when The World and Weekend World newspapers were banned, including the ecclesiastical publication, Pro Veritate.
No matter the puerile excuses proffered, Percy Qoboza and his team were targeted for three cardinal sins in particular. First, apartheid’s umbrage included the newspapers’ reports on the humiliating defeat of South Africa’s military misadventures at the hands of the combined Cuban and Angolan defensive manoeuvres.
Second, the Balthazar J Vorster administration was frustrated by the local and global impact of the newspaper reports on the June 16, 1976, uprising and its aftermath. Most importantly, a month before the issuing of the despotic edict by Jimmy Kruger, the publications gave prominent coverage to the brutal murder of Steve Biko. Predictably therefore, at the height of the madness called apartheid, such aberrations had become commonplace.
This draconian impulse had nothing to do with what the media did or did not do. In a way, the quintessence of the freedom of the Fourth Estate to reflect on its surroundings and the suasion that defines its morality, sums up what generally refers to as "media freedom". Out of the experience of the day the flowers died we draw from one of its many lessons that at some critical point of concentration, power itself wishes to become the only medium, with or without the freedoms that define it, especially without. For with freedom comes accountability. And so in that crossroads of conflict where the hubris of power encounters a free media, it is the freedom to engage honestly, fairly and factually on matters affecting publicans that suffers violent casualty.
The media, therefore, has got a lot of responsibilities to protect its freedom and, protect it, it must. Our times as do our quotidian routines are inclined wholesome to the impulses of journalism, whether at its worst when it persecutes the innocent or at its most devious, when it exonerates the errant ways of the powerful from public scrutiny. There is no denying that we are dominated by journalism, as the most quotable penman of his generation, Oscar Wilde, once observed. His birthday celebrated three days shy of our "media freedom day", he once famously observed that "somebody - was it Burke? - called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment, it is the only estate".
Freedom unchecked to whomsoever it behoves, is irresponsibly bestowed. In such state, its propensity may be injurious to anyone within proximate reach. As the only estate remaining, it has too much power and every so often, it tends to exhibit similar oppressive and arrogant tendencies which the apartheid Frankenstein flaunted with gleeful abandon. No doubt, the media has got the right to err within its limits as prescribed either by fiat or by the law of precedence. Our expectation is that it can falter in so far as its interpretation of facts is concerned. Hardly can it be absolved from the pursuit of the truth gleaned from objective fact.
The second postmark is the rise of anti-intellectualism. At its lowest form, this is the tendency to draw conclusions which are not supported by rational facts. At this political moment in our realm, the frequency and the extent of its occurrence, reflects a significant advance towards a dystopian uncertainty. There are signs everywhere. The most compelling is when the interests of the State and those of the individuals who people it become insidiously intertwined. In an attempt to prevent or delay an inevitable fall, the State or at least its administrators, become paranoid and subsequently dictatorial, insisting on vaunting one version of events only and one version of interpretation over it, their own.
There are many threats to the sustainability of the freedom of the project in which the media forms an integral part. Yet none poses a more lethal threat to its existentialist ambitions than the media itself. Bias. Unfairness. Untruthfulness. Pandering to powerful interests. There is no doubt that the media will survive. However, the conniving power of these negative traits will pervert the essence of its currency, which is based on public trust.
The media ought to be reminded that they are designed to serve as a bulwark against intellectual fascism and its streak to impose one view on society, whose fascination is to claim absolute superiority above all other ideas. By its dark nature, fascism tends to churn out tribal affiliations. Homophobic tribes. Racists. Religious fundamentalists. Anti-communists. Anti-capitalists. And the list may go on. And for reasons deeply steeped in history, South Africa is a convenient fertile cesspool for the nurturing of these warlike mongers. Thus the media is expected to play arbiter in the dissemination of fact, even though such facts are not sensational enough for the commercial bottom line of some media houses. Even though Wilde remarked that the pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple, on this 19th of October I make bold to say that from the media is required simplicity of fact and purity of intention in enough measures to feed the embers of the media fires and its oft’ threatened freedoms.
* Ambassador Bheki Gila is a Barrister-at-Law.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.