Thursday, 12 July 2012

Potential implications of a deteriorating media freedom climate in South Africa on Southern Africa.



Remarks made at the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Public Discussion on Media Developments in South Africa and their potential impact in Southern Africa.
Wednesday, 12 July 2012: Rosebank Crowne Plaza Hotel, Rosebank, Johannesburg, South Africa

By Takura Zhangazha.* 
Mr Chairman,
Let me begin by expressing the gratitude of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwefor the invitation to attend this public discussion at the behest of our colleagues from the Media Institute of Southern Africa(MISA). The topic under discussion is an important one because it relates to the state of media freedom in the Southern African region with particular emphasis on recent media policy developments in South Africa.

It is an historically understood point  that in the aftermath of the anti-apartheid struggle and on the basis of its democratic constitution, the influence of South Africa on broad regional debates concerning democratization issues has been and continues to be  substantial.

This should also be taken to mean that it is generally perceived within the Southern African region and beyond that South Africa is a good example of a functional democratic state. Such comparisons are even more poignant where the Zimbabwean state is compared with the South African one either in direct relation to democratic practice or where it concerns issues of the perfomance legitimacy of former liberation movements that are in power in both of our countries.

In the last ten or so years, one of the key components of measuring and comparing the democratic perfomances of various SADC states has been whether or not the citizens of the same are enjoying their right to freedom of expression, and whether the freedom of the press is also guaranteed. South Africa has had the distinction of being singled out as having some of the most democratic clauses in its constitution and attendant enabling laws concerning freedom of expression, media freedom and media diversity. In fact, it has been cited by many Zimbabwean media stakeholders as an example of where lessons can be drawn from in order for the Zimbabwean media landscape to be fully democratised, particularly with regards to media self regulation, broadcasting diversity as well as media sustainability.

It has however come to pass that the South African government has decided that it must introduce the Protection of State Information Bill, a development that has had the unfortunate impact of making some governments in the rest of the SADC region claim that their laws are not so bad after all (even if they remain much worse, eg. Zapiro would probably have been a police cell in Zimbabwe charged with undermining the authority of the President).

Add to this, the now stalled Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) which is currently a policy document of the ruling African National Congress, then indeed there is serious cause for concern about media freedom in South Africa. And given the regional ‘democratic example’ role that South Africa has been playing, it would also mean that if the MAT were to be made government policy, it would be a significant setback  for media freedom in the region by way of example.  

It would also appear as if the South African ruling party is getting lessons from some of its neighboring ruling parties in the region who insist on statutory regulation as well as criminalization of the media profession. From our own Zimbabwean experiences, such tendencies can only be those of  governments  that have  more to hide than share in the best democratic public interest.

Apart from the new undemocratic policy trends in South Africa as regards the mainstream media, again there is the new threat that is emerging from governments across the world against those that utilize social  media for citizen journalism or even just expressing their opinion on political matters. Given the global government panic over the impact of Wikileaks as well as the invoking of anti-terrorism laws by governments that have been at the forefront of promoting democracy globally are now preferring criminal charges against whistle blowers and investigative journalists. This is an unfortunate emerging trend that the Southern African region would do well to avoid.

With regards to the important issue of media self regulation in the region, it is imperative that we continue to emphasize the democratic symbiosis of the rights of media freedom with freedom of expression and access to information. None can exist without any of the other two.

Where governments both within our SADC region and across the oceans have started to talk about exercising either of the triumvirate rights separately, it must be viewed as being tantamount to seeking to make freedom of expression either a ‘qualified’ (depending on your political loyalties) franchise right or ‘privilege’ rights to be enjoyed solely by those in power.

This is why ‘co-regulation’ of the media by the state and the media itself, though being touted as a ‘compromise’, is patently inadequate in allowing the media to carry out its public interest mandate.
Governments, South Africa’s included, have adopted a ‘self righteous’ approach that seeks more to threaten the media than to engage in progressive dialogue with the media and allow media self regulation breathing space.

This is a habit that is now generally seen across the sub-region, and the new media policy direction being debated by the South African Parliament, unfortunately serves to strengthen the emergence of governments with predatory tendencies against the media.
It is therefore of utmost importance that we do not seek compromises that seek to protect those in power or those that claim and  wrongly seek to confer responsibilities that are undemocratic on the media while they skirt the democratic mandates that have been given to them by electorates.

Media self regulation is of the utmost importance in Southern Africa and indeed to our South African media colleagues because it has not yet been fully implemented. In effect it is work in progress. We therefore must not at this juncture permit democratic values to be compromised on the basis of the sole whim of governments that are more keen on control than they are on democratic media public accountability and serving the best public interest.

Where media self regulation has been faulted by governments in the region or elsewhere, these are accusations of those that either misunderstand the organic triumvirate of the right to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom (which is inclusive of media self regulation).

It is however not only governments that must be reminded on these matters. Owners of the media products/houses must also commit themselves more and more to learning to balance their valid concerns on profit and sustainability with those of the public interest as well as media ethics. This would include ensuring that at least they collectively continue to agree on particular media ethics and commit to supporting media self regulatory mechanisms.  Journalists must also demonstrate commitment to the same said media ethics and media self regulatory mechanisms with the primary intention of proving that the profession is essentially there to work in the best public interest and with democratic media public accountability. 

To conclude, I must emphasize that the debate around media self regulation is a big debate about the triumvirate rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom. Where we begin to see this clearly, we can argue on the basis of the democratic rights of the people of South Africa, Southern Africa and the world to enjoy these rights without undue interference. It would therefore be wrong for regional governments to seek to criminalise the three rights all at once via threatening journalists, whistleblowers and human rights activists for publishing information which in most circumstances is directly in the public interest. Where some of the technical arguments against media self regulation  relate to how ‘no one is above the law’, criminalizing the work of journalists will always, in the final analysis , be patently undemocratic.
Thank You.
*Takura Zhangazha is the Executive Director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (www.vmcz.co.zw)