Media freedom and democracy under siege
THIS PAST week we have seen an intolerance of different views expressed in the media and across social channels, especially in relation to the politics of the country. Despite people claiming to want media freedom, Independent Media journalists and editors have been attacked for writing stories that go against the mainstream narrative perpetuated by the other media.
This, very obvious attack on Independent Media, its journalists, and editors has now been extended to a full-frontal attack at myself and the Sekunjalo Group (Sekunjalo).
Various institutions are being engaged to fight these battles, which led Sekunjalo to encourage Independent Media and AYO Technology Solutions to make presentations to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance (SCoF) to outline their position and inform their side of the conversation. This, after Finance Minister Tito Mboweni indicated that it was important for Parliament to hear their side of the story, especially in relation to the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) Report coming out of the Mpati Commission.
The presentations to SCoF, by the AYO chairperson and the Independent Media chief operations officer, clearly set out the campaign against the Sekunjalo Group companies.
So, what is the ‘crime’ that Sekunjalo has been accused of committing? Only that it had the temerity to invest in the media industry in the first place and has since, driven transformation in the media industry. This has included a narrative that was factual, honest, has presented both sides of the story and has conveyed a strong focus on socio-economic transformation and justice, as well as representing a broader sector of the South African populace than ever before.
This is very much against the mainstream narrative peddled by apartheid-era media companies that are still largely run by the establishment and which, remain largely untransformed in terms of the South African democratic agenda.
As South Africans, we are very proud of our Constitution - one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. Indeed, we should be proud of it in that it was a Constitution written by the blood of sacrifice especially by the majority who opposed apartheid.
While our Constitution had very noble objectives, especially towards equality and non-discriminatory practices, it did not take into account that the levers of power, remain largely with the establishment and untransformed entities. For example, those vested in the economy, regulatory institutions such as banks, financial regulators and others and which continue to be largely untransformed.
What the writers of the Constitution did not foresee, was how, those who control the capital markets and the financial institutions, could hinder socio-economic transformation. There is a juxtaposition of two opposing forces –a Constitution that seeks to achieve social justice but, an economy that is controlled by a few not interested in social justice.
In writing about the continued economic inequalities and exposing a different perspective, Independent Media has been targeted for silence. Yet, media freedom, one of the cornerstones of any democracy, is about genuinely allowing different points of view to exist in a society - as long as what is published is accurate, fair and everyone is given an opportunity to present their side of the story. This has been the foundation on which Independent Media has operated since it was bought by the Sekunjalo consortium.
The more than 1500 people employed by Independent Media are part of a team that produces outstanding journalism, with angles and perspectives that are at variance to the typical narrative. It is this difference in viewpoint that creates a state of paranoia within our detractors, especially those in power.
Our critics do not want a multiplicity of viewpoints. They would prefer a plot that is uniform and speaks to an angle or storyline that presents the current status quo as having no faults and being able to do no wrong.
The reality, however, is that South Africa today finds itself in a position, where those in control of the economy and those with political power, use the instruments of power not for the benefit of the people but, for self-enrichment all at the expense of the majority of the people – no matter their race, creed or culture.
Our journalists, at grave danger to themselves, publish articles on a regular basis, about the crude looting of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and municipalities and other areas of government.
The looting of Eskom in the last few years, has been widely covered by all media, yet it is what is happening now, that makes what happened in the past, seem a minor happenstance.
It is inconceivable that Eskom is able to allocate tens of billions of rand in contracts to one grouping and at the stroke of a pen increase the price paid by Eskom to this grouping to deliver super profits to this grouping.
It should be of grave concern to everyone, that there is a huge conflict of interest when the recipients of such favours are donors to individuals and in other cases, are family members of former board members of Eskom.
This is just one example of wholesale looting of an SOE now in R450 billion worth of debt, leading to higher prices for electricity and power, which may result in insolvency or bankruptcy, and which will see a forced sale into separate business units.
It is only with a free press, and where the journalists, editors and owners are not harassed and crucified for having the courage to publish such information, can we assist our Constitutional obligations and our democracy.
It is Independent Media who originally broke the story of the corruption related to the rollout of protective personal equipment (PPE). It is Independent Media that published the CR17 bank statements in order to encourage transparency from those in power and to ensure the public knows who funds those in power, so that where there are conflicts, such as occurring currently at Eskom and the PPE procurement, they can be known by the public.
Independent Media exposes relationships between the establishment and others, that lead to the looting of the state, retard socio-economic transformation. Our democracy is at risk, when authoritarianism emerges, when there is an intolerance of diverse views and when those in power, as well as those who control the economy, threaten media freedom by using state resources, financial muscle and regulatory institutions to cripple important pillars of the media.
The attacks on myself, Independent Media and the Sekunjalo group and its associated companies, are orchestrated, well-resourced and designed to collapse our businesses. Most importantly, they are designed to bring about the end to media freedom. If this were to happen, it will allow those in power (and those who control the economy), to have a singular narrative supported by their praise singers who have long dispensed with the notion of a free and objective media to receive their pieces of silver.
Unless we stop this now, by the time our countrymen wake-up, it will be too late.
At present, there is a dominant and singular narrative pretending to deal with issues of corruption, maladministration and maleficence. In truth though, there is a cover up of large-scale looting of state resources and acquisition of assets through rights such as mineral rights, to purchase cheap assets owned by the state in order to achieve this.
Early in 2018, I had the good fortune of sitting in a knowledgeable group of personages with proximity to those in power - both economically and politically - and it was mentioned that those in power would accumulate hundreds of billions of rand in wealth through family and friends over the next decade. This will pale into insignificance to that which happened during the periods of former presidents Thabo Mbeki, Kgkgalema Motlanthe or Jacob Zuma’s administrations.
The only entity that is able to stop this kind of looting on a scale unseen before is a media that is able to be genuinely free and report on what takes place.
When media freedom is at risk, our democracy is at
risk. When our democracy is at risk, it means that the socio-economic objectives become increasingly less achievable, and we set ourselves on course for decades of impoverishment for the vast majority of people.
This has happened in several countries in other parts of the world under the guise of a new beginning and which ultimately led to democratic failure and socio-economic disasters.
It is important that the country, the public, the people not only defend our right to exist as Independent Media, but also the rights of ownership of the importance of this institution, the rights of our journalists and employees to work together to provide diversity in narrative.
Failure to act and defend Independent Media and our democracy, will lead to anarchy, authoritarianism and system failure. Cry our beloved country!
* Dr Iqbal Survé is the executive chairperson of Independent Media.