Desire for liberties – including access to honest, fact-based media – cannot be extinguished
It was in 1981 on a flight to take up a doctoral scholarship at Johns Hopkins University that I met Ameen Akhalwaya, who was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in the US. He was a leading anti-apartheid journalist during the bad old days of apartheid and returned to South Africa a year later to become chief copy editor of the Rand Daily Mail.
In many of our conversations about the apartheid state during the never-ending flights to New York via Rio de Janeiro and later when I visited him in Boston in the US, we discussed among other things, the role of the press in fighting for the liberty of our country, especially the draconian issue of “Black Wednesday” of October 19, 1977 and the state’s banning of independent media in an attempt to hide its atrocious perpetrations on the majority of people in South Africa.
On this day, The World and The Weekend World newspapers were gagged and their editor Percy Qoboza and deputy editor Aggrey Klaaste were detained and several anti-apartheid organisations were banned. Though it was another wretched blemish cast on the apartheid regime, this horrendous act portended a media blackout of the popular press and a serious threat to the struggle.
In one of those encounters, we also chatted about the overall political situation in South Africa, our revered leaders who were incarcerated on Robben Island and the untimely death of Steve Biko at the hands of one of the most repressive security forces in the world at that time. At a more academic level, we talked about John Rawls and his theory of “Social Justice” and the issue of “Truth” and why it has such gravity and central place in a journalist’s life. He was of the view that a dedicated pursuit of truth characterised a good journalist.
We also chatted about the need for “freedom of expression” and “freedom of the press”. Being the serial optimist he was, I remember Ameen saying, “Black Wednesday has made us even more resilient and when, not if, we win the war against the oppressive apartheid state, we need to ensure that freedom of the press and freedom of expression is enshrined in the post-apartheid bill of rights and the constitution”. He opined that it’s the only way we can assure that the new democracy, when it comes into being, can be protected.
Sadly in 1998, four years after our freedom became a truth, Ameen passed away as a result of cancer. His passionate wish about the “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press” being enshrined in our Constitution was realised. I sincerely hope the new generation realises the importance of this coveted prize which in some other countries is merely a pipe dream. It has protected our fledgeling democracy and the basic right of freedom of speech and the right to know about power and its abuse. Since the demise of apartheid the country has made immense advances in terms of freedom of the press and freedom of expression and this is borne out by the most recent World Press Freedom Index of 2019 where South Africa ranks 31 out of 180 countries.
However, the report indicates that some journalists were subjected to intimidation in cases of reporting on sensitive issues which included government finances, redistribution of land, and corruption. Other evidence from separate reports has shown that reporters were harassed by the police and their cameras were either damaged or confiscated. These vignettes of censorship are worrying.
While nothing as serious as “Black Wednesday” has occurred since the country’s transition, there are some emerging concerns in the domain of the popular media and these warn of new terrain for internecine struggles.
On the one hand, primarily because of financial viability media houses have had to restructure their businesses interests and in this process, they have resorted to the process of retrenchments. Within this context business interests and political intrusions have also surreptitiously pervaded the media space.
Added to these already toxic environments of negativities, we have also witnessed the disruptive introduction of the digital era and concomitant social media and its predisposition to engender misinformation, “halftruths” and “fake news”. And all of this has seriously compromised the efficacy of journalism. On the other hand and on a more positive note we have seen the resurgence of investigative journalism. Some non-profit groups, in particular, stand out for their authentic work on the reporting of corruption, state capture, the misdemeanours of international based auditing firms and the Gupta-linked transgressions on our sovereignty.
The National Prosecution Authority though has not been readily forthcoming in using these new revelations for action against the perpetrators thus compromising the integrity of our Constitution and the fundamental pillars of our democracy. Indeed, this too is disturbing.
In respect of the above even the gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic has not been spared misinformation. Such malicious misinformation is countering the real information by the medical specialists and confusing ordinary people and consequently promoting the pandemic and endangering national health and security.
Let us also not forget that it was and still is the authentic voices of journalists like Ameen Akhalwaya and his ilk that were and still are pivotal in informing and galvanising public support for the struggle towards democratisation and its sustainability in South Africa. The basic desire for democratic liberties, including access to honest and fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished.
Now it’s up to all of us to continue to appreciate this freedom and demand that it remains protected. As Walter Cronkite famously said: “Freedom of the press is not just important for democracy, it is democracy.”
* Dhiru Soni is the head of the Directorate for Research at Regent Business School. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.