The ANC is ratcheting up its opposition to the media’s ability to hold government and society to account. This much is evident in its desire to set up a media tribunal (a censorship committee by any other name), and its proposed Protection of Information Bill which would severely hamper the work of investigative journalists. The bill allows government to classify information on the loosely defined basis of them being “in the national interest” — a convenient label that could be slapped onto anything incriminating that officials want to keep from prying eyes. Journalists exposing information from those documents would face harsh prison sentences.
In the light of these two imminent assaults on the South African media’s freedom, the ANC’s leaders would do well to read the views of Nelson Mandela. Shortly before the 1994 election, he addressed the International Press Institute Congress and spoke about the importance of freedom of the press.
Here is an excerpt:
Truth does indeed have immense power; yet it remains extremely elusive. No single person, no body of opinion, no political or religious doctrine, no political party or government can claim to have a monopoly on truth. For that reason truth can be arrived at only through the untrammelled contest between and among competing opinions, in which as many viewpoints as possible are given a fair and equal hearing. It has therefore always been our contention that laws, mores, practices and prejudices that place constraints on freedom of expression are a disservice to society. Indeed these are the devices employed by falsehood to lend it strength in its unequal contest with truth.
The removal from South Africa’s Statute books of the scores of laws, ordinances, regulations and administrative measures that have empowered government to abridge the rights of South African citizens to know the truth, or which repress the freedom of the media to publish, or which limit citizens’ rights to express themselves are, in our view, essential for a democratic political climate. Freedom of expression, of which press freedom is a crucial aspect, is among the core values of democracy that we have striven for. To realise and institutionalise these freedoms requires that, in the first instance, we have a government representative of and based on the will of all the people.
A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.
It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.
I have often said that the media are a mirror through which we can see ourselves as others perceive us, warts, blemishes and all. The African National Congress has nothing to fear from criticism. I can promise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our considered view that such criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people’s expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe.