The following is a short lecture delivered by Prof Pieter J Fourie to the Department of Communication Science at Unisa on 31 August 2010, which details some of the issues surrounding the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) and the Protection of Information Bill (PIB).
Prof Pieter J Fourie
Dept of Communication Science
Please don’t see this as a formal lecture. Rather I am expressing a only a few thoughts about:
(1) What the crisis/anxiety/fuss is about
(2) The vagueness of members of the government and parliament’s complaints against the media
(3) The danger of returning to draconian censorship
(4) The needs for consensus about the role and functions of the media in society
Points which you are welcome to debate and expand on.
1 WHAT IS THE CRISIS/FEAR/ANXIETY/FUSS ABOUT?
The Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT)
After a series of attacks on the media for being anti-government, non-patriotic and not contributing to national development (see Fourie, 2009), the ANC government threatened at its 2007 Polokwane Conference to establish a tribunal to monitor the media and to which people (probably especially government officials) can appeal to about the media. At this conference, in a discussion document under the title “Communications and the Battle of Ideas”, 26 points dealt with the media, including the introduction or establishment of Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT). That is a Tribunal regardless of existing and efficient self-regulatory and working bodies such as the Press Ombudsman, The Press Council, the BCCSA, Sanef and existing external government regulatory bodies. Since 2007 this Tribunal - and no one actually knows exactly what its functions will be and how and by whom it will be operated, and what it will cost - has been hanging like a sword over the media. It is now again on the agenda of the coming ANC conference, and it seems as if there are some members of government who are serious to push it through.
The Protection of Information Bill (PIB)
The second issue contributing to the present highly tensed relationship between the media and the government, is the highly controversial Protection of Information Bill, which also has been on the table for number of years and has been referred back to committees a number of times, but still contains clauses which are, in terms of the Constitution, a serious threat not only to the media, but to the right to information of each and every one of us. This Bill, inter alia, makes it a punishable offence (up to 25 years in prison) for the media to possess, communicate or publish classified state information. It defines any government information as classifiable if it is seen by a politician and/or a civil servant to be harmful to the “national interest”.
The Public Service Broadcasting Bill
The third disturbing development is the publication of a Public Service Broadcasting Bill in 2009, also presently under discussion, which deals with a variety of matters ranging from funding issues to additional managerial structures, to digitisation, etcetera. But most of all, it is disconcerting in the sense of the possible unlimited power it may give to the Minister of Communications over the SABC’s day-to-day business - in other words, this Bill is seen as a serious threat to the autonomy of the broadcaster.
Reasons for the Bills and Media Appeals Tribunal
Why exactly the government wants these Bills and the Media Appeals Tribunal is not at all clear. Complaints against the media are vague and can be dealt with efficiently with existing bodies such as Press Ombudsman, the Press Council, the BCCSA and, if needed, an appeals court and Icasa. One can only conclude that the only reason is to silence the media about reporting government corruption, outrageous money spending, poor performance and service delivery, etc. In short, to silence criticism, because, should the Bill on the Protection of Information be passed this is exactly the kind of information that government can and probably will decide are not in the public’s interest and should thus be censored.
TOGETHER these issues, and there have been similar issues and threats the past decade, pose an extremely serious threat to South Africa’s democracy. It is therefore gratifying to have experienced the past few weeks how civil society, NGOs, unions, legal societies, international media associations, diplomats, academics and obviously the media themselves have shown their discontent and aversion with the government’s plans in a continued and strong campaign against it.
2 A RETURN TO DRACONIAN CENSORSHIP
Why such a campaign? Amongst other reasons, and for me, because the government’s media plans clearly indicates a growing similarity between the ANC’s treatment of the media and how the media were dealt with under Apartheid. As such it can be read or interpreted as an indication of a return to an era of draconian censorship.
This is what I warn against in my column on Litnet (www.litnet.co.za), with reference to an article I wrote under the title A return to the repression of freedom of expression? Similarities between the apartheid government(s) and the ANC’s treatment of the media published in March 2009 in a special edition of the Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe (Vol. 49 (1) 2009) on freedom of expression and which I had the honour of being the guest editor of, and a lecture I gave at the University of the Western Cape also in early 2009 under the title The strategy of inducing self-censorship. Questioning the role and value of the media in South Africa.
In both I show and argue how the apartheid government(s) and now the ANC have and are harassing the media with (1) constant threats of increased regulation and censorship (in the case of apartheid commissions of enquiry, threats about the registration of journalists, and now the ANC’s threatened tribunal and controversial bills; (2) the almost frequent if not constant public discrediting of the media (the result being a public who mistrust their media); (3) frequent threats to the autonomy and independence of the public broadcaster; (4) threats to purchase and/or start own political party media, (5), the constant discrediting of the professionalism and ethics of journalists and the media, (6) under apartheid the deliberate instigation of conflict between journalists (English and Afrikaans) and lately attacks on the foreign media, and by so doing, seeking to distort solidarity between journalists and within the journalism profession.
I am concerned that if the ANC continues with its negative attitude towards the media we may end up with the kind of draconian censorship we have had in South Africa closer to the end of apartheid, with more than a hundred laws which in one or another way restricted the media.
Think of, for example, the dreaded Internal Security Act (1976) which led to the banning of newspapers, parts of newspapers, stories in newspapers, books and films). Think of, in 1985, the prohibition of the publication of information about security forces, about any restricted gatherings, about boycotts, illegal organisations, people’s courts, restricted persons or detainees, the publication of any so-called subversive statements, the publication of anything which may have encouraged people to participate in so-called illegal gatherings; the prohibition of the publication of anything which was seen as an attack on the security forces, which opposed any member of the Cabinet, or which was seen to encourage the public to engage in so-called civil disobedience such as to join the End Conscription Campaign, or to join or support any unlawful organization, or to commit any other act seen to be in disobedience of the government and named as such by the Commissioner of Police in the Government Gazette.
3 THE WAY FORWARD
In the light of the above, and obviously against the background of
- our knowledge of normative media theory and
- theories about the role and functions of the media in society,
- and, against the background of our knowledge of how these theories are founded on classic Greek thinking about the role of public communication in democracy,
- of how they are founded on the history and philosophy of the Enlightenment with its emphasis, inter alia, on human freedom and rationality,
- and lately against the background of our knowledge of how they can be based on ubuntu as an African moral philosophy with its emphasis, inter alia, also on freedom and liberty.
I cannot else but to warn against the proposed Bills and the Media Appeals Tribunal and to emphasise that the struggle for freedom of expression continues. Freedom of expression as a pillar of democracy is our only guarantee against despotism and eventual anarchy.
Shortly after the fall of apartheid, South Africa adopted outstanding and progressive media legislation based on the entrenchment of freedom of expression in the country’s constitution. South African media policy was seen by many as a model of democratic media policy/policy-making, and was the result of the work over decades of, amongst others, many civil society organisations and media NGOs such Jabulani, FXI, MISA, IDASA, etcetera, as well as the ANC itself, then still in exile, and its media experts. Now it seems as if the government wants to destroy this work with ill-considered and ill-judged legislation and regulation.
With the above I do not want to suggest or create the impression that our media are perfect. In style, tone and modality they are often too provocative, aggressive and sensational. But this is a matter which can be addressed without censorship and/or harsher regulation. It does not mean that they should not be allowed or obstructed to continue to fulfil their duties of informing the South African public, of commenting on South African realities and of being a watchdog over the government and its deeds or lack of deeds.
One can only trust that the present campaign against the government’s proposed actions will lead the government to refrain from carrying it through.
However, on a more depressing note, the strategy of persistently attacking and threatening the media in itself has a devastating effect on freedom of expression as it had under apartheid. It inevitably leads or can lead to self censorship – and a scared and frightened media are often worse than official censorship.
Civil society and its campaign against the proposed plans may win this time. But, it will not be the end of the government’s efforts to interfere with the media. They will be back. That is the nature of power and governments’ struggle for power – to attack the media. That means we constantly have to be alert and monitor the government/media relationship. As I argue in the column on Litnet, we can only hope to begin to resolve the tensed relationship between the government, civil society and the media, once we can begin to reach fundamental consensus about the role and function of the media in society. Thus, we are back at debating, questioning and researching normative theory and to our task as lecturers and academics to instil in our students a sound knowledge of the unquestionable important role of the media in and for democracy, even if democracy itself may for the time being, be in a crisis.