VICIOUS TRIANGLE: A woman cooks food for her children in a camp set up for internally displaced people in southern Somalia. In his research, Indian economist Amartya Sen discovered that famines occurred not due to a lack of food but due to food distribution problems, which, in turn, were caused by a lack of a free press. Picture: Feisal Omar / Reuters

In Mozambique, where I’m attending a conference on participatory democracy hosted by Frelimo, it is clear that SA remains a beacon of press freedom on the African continent. But what is also clear to us, but perhaps less clear here in Maputo, is that, that status has come under real threat from new legislative proposals, from hostile political rhetoric, and from the conduct of some senior state officials in SA.

From the so-called “secrecy bill” to the fact that journalists on the Sunday Times have been spied on and intimidated, to the threat to boycott the City Press, it is clear that the ruling elite has our celebrated press freedom in its sights.

But, while our status as a “beacon” for press freedom is being threatened by increased state involvement, there are some glimpses of hope. One of the hopeful aspects of recent developments has been the vibrant debate on press freedom that has been a critical part of the national conversation in SA for some time now.

In this context, it may be worth turning to the work of the great Indian economist, Amartya Sen, who changed the way that we understand famines – and was able to draw a fascinating link between press freedom and famine.

For him, the topic of famine was not one of mere academic interest. As a nine-year-old boy he lived through the Bengal famine of 1943 and was shaped by the enormous suffering that he had witnessed. As an adult, his research on famine threw up an intriguing result. Sen found that in no country was famine the result of a shortage of food. In each of the famines that he studied, he found that the real problem was the distribution of food. He also found that in each case, the problems with the distribution of food were a result of another problem – a lack of press freedom.

In fact, Sen found that there has never been a famine in recent times in any country that has press freedom. The reason for this is simple; a free press will always report things like food shortages, resulting in pressure on governments to take effective action to resolve the situation.

In the light of Sen’s research, the attack on press freedom is not just an attack on human rights. And, it is certainly not a matter that is solely of concern to the middle class. On the contrary, it is also an attack on the material interests of the poor. If tenderpreneurs and their theft and shoddy work are not exposed in the media, the plunder of the public purse will continue unabated. And, without press freedom, corruption will remain the greatest threat to our nation.

Liberal commentators have focused their criticism of the attack on press freedom on the damage that it is doing to SA’s image across the world. They are making a real error of judgment.

They are quite right to stand up for press freedom, but quite wrong to do so on the basis that an attack on press freedom will undermine our international standing. This is a neo-colonial argument and will, quite rightly, be labelled and dismissed as such.

We shouldn’t reject the attack on press freedom because Obama won’t like it or because human rights organisations in England or France won’t like it. We should reject it because it is an attack on our basic freedoms and one that will damage the interests of the marginalised and vulnerable the most.

If this battle on press freedom is to be won it will be won outside the domain of the political elite. The media itself has an important role to play. It must refuse to be intimidated and really challenge itself to look beyond the interests of elites and to try to represent the poor more fairly.

Civil society will raise its voice, but very often civil society is funded by foreign governments and it will, inevitably, be attacked as a foreign conspiracy.

The only constituency that really has the credibility to take this attack on media freedom head-on is the popular organisations and ordinary people – the trade unions, the religious groups and the community organisations and social movements.

It is a great pity that the leading civil society campaigners for press freedom have not won the confidence of the major progressive organisations and movements of the poor. They have tended to focus their alliance-building on middle class, and often white-led NGOs, instead of working to build alliances with popular organisations. This has been a major strategic error that could well come back to haunt the campaign for press freedom.

A campaign in support of press freedom led by the organisations of the working class and the poor is the only campaign that can really succeed in the long term. Anything else will be dismissed as neo-colonial or as the middle class acting in defence of their own privilege.

If the people campaigning for press freedom want to win their battle, and to do it in a way that creates a secure consensus for the future, they need to ensure that their fundamental orientation is to popular organisations and movements and not middle class and often white-dominated NGOs.