There is no genuine freedom for the media as long as control is concentrated in the hands of a small privileged elite, says Vukani Mde and Karima Brown.
Much of the globe celebrates World Press Freedom Day this month. Perhaps the word “celebrate” is a misnomer, given that the critical rights of freedom of expression and a free press are not yet universally entrenched.
In too many places, journalism remains a dangerous – and sometimes fatal – occupation.
In the most infamous case on the African continent, Ethiopian journalist Eskider Nega has been jailed on seven separate occasions for criticism of the state and political leadership.
He remains in prison following a 2012 conviction on “terrorism” charges, for his criticism of a draconian “anti-terrorism” law that the government of that country has used to silence critics, persecute the political opposition and criminalise journalism.
The prison system that holds Eskinder Nega is notorious for its routine use of torture against inmates. The case of Eskinder Nega and hundreds of other journalists across the world is reminiscent of the behaviour of our erstwhile oppressors, the apartheid government.
Where today terrorism is the fig leaf behind which oppressive regimes hide their persecution of the free press, South Africans will remember vividly the use of “anti-communism” legislation to silence, imprison, torture and even murder journalists as well as apartheid activists.
In South Africa, Media Freedom Day commemorates the events of October 19, 1977, also known as “Black Wednesday”, when the apartheid government banned three newspapers and 17 black organisations and jailed their activists and journalists.
It is unthinkable that South Africans will ever face such threats again from the state. But that is not the same thing as saying that press freedom is assured.
The threats against media freedom in post-apartheid South Africa are far more subtle and may often emanate from quarters that speak the language of freedom and democracy.
Where previously we were threatened by the jackboot and the barrel of the gun, today we may be more imperiled by deceit.
In today’s South Africa, media freedom cannot be divorced from media transformation.
That is a simple and obvious statement that is not universally accepted, especially in some privileged quarters. But it must be repeated until even the most stubborn have internalised it: There is no genuine freedom for the media as long as control is concentrated in the hands of a small privileged elite, both here and everywhere else.
Because of our particular history here, it should be public policy to break this concentration.
The transformation picture in our country’s privately-owned press is dismal, reflecting the state of transformation in the economy at large, as reported recently by the Commission for Employment Equity. In the main, the big media groups don’t care a damn.
Here is how the business website GetBiz reported their reaction to a 2014 report on media transformation: “A report lamenting the commercial marginalisation of black South Africans in the print media industry has been swept under the carpet by the dominant major media owners for a year, raising questions about their commitment to racial transformation 20 years after the demise of apartheid.”
Press freedom is not synonymous with the perpetuation of white privilege, despite many arguing and behaving as if it is.
The backlash against the change of ownership at Independent Media – involving former staffers, the official opposition DA, competitor media houses, and self appointed “rights” groups – has been an instructive study in how privilege fights back against any change that threatens it.
The Right2Know organisation last week issued a statement on the matter of media freedom in South Africa to mark International Press Freedom Day. In over 1 600 words in which the organisation waxes freely about internal matters at Independent Media, not a word is said about transformation and the need to break the stranglehold of a small racial minority on ownership, management and the narrative preoccupations of our media.
But Right2Know and others like them have long mastered the conceit of painting those whose narrative and political leanings they disagree with as threats to freedom.
We must not be taken in by such dishonest stratagems. Our understanding of media freedom includes the right to challenge dominant narratives whether they are political, social or cultural.
This is especially the case where these reinforce existing power structures.
Transformation of the media also encompasses the need to break with patriarchal male dominance and the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.
Independent Media has experienced an overhaul at the most senior executive levels, aimed at empowering women leaders in the organisation and in our titles. This, similar to our change project at large, is still a work in progress.
We are unapologetic about the direction we have chosen to take over the past two years or so.
In fact, we are nothing if not proud of our efforts to change the organisation from top to bottom, and in so doing accelerate the pace and direction of change in the media at large.
We believe this is the only way to entrench and protect freedom of the press in this country for posterity.
* Vukani Mde is Group Editor: Opinion and Analysis and Karima Brown is Group Executive Editor for Independent Media.