In late July, two events of significance for the media in South Africa should have stirred both a sense of trepidation and a feeling of victory among all who hold our democracy and a free media dear.
The one event related to Russian authorities revokingwithout any explanation the accreditation of Daily Maverick’s foreign policy specialist, Peter Fabricius, to cover the 2ndRussia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg. He had covered the previous one. The other concerned a ‘victory for press freedom’ when a high court judge dismissed an urgent defamation application by associates of Deputy President Paul Mashatile who wanted to stop Media24 from using the term ’Alex Mafia’ when referring to them (also used for Mashatile), even if the term had been used popularly for decades without any objection. The judge issued a scathing rebuke saying the plaintiffs had abused the court process. Where the Russian authorities succeeded to muzzle the press, the Alex Mafia had failed.
Even if these two incidents are small and relatively insignificant when viewed in isolation, they are important. For, as our world edges ever closer to destructive danger and harm in the face of wars, famine, climate change and harsh weather events, poverty and inequality, refugee crises, polarisation, racism, moral depravity, and deepening nationalist intolerance, those beacons of democracy that once gave us direction, certainty and an unassailable sense of security – democracy itself – are under attack. This is true also of South Africa.
One such pillar of democracy that increasingly finds itself threatened and attacked in various parts of the world, is the media and media freedom. Globally the media has been shrinking; it continues to struggle to make a successful, viable transition from print to digital; revenues are dwindling, and newsrooms are cut to the bone; social media threatens to overpower the regular media as people’s primary source of information; distrust of the media is growing, fanned on by unscrupulous politicians and business leaders who sow division and mistrust with their charges of ‘fake news’ as they seek to control the narrative in their pursuit of power and profits.
In many instances media houses have themselves become their own worst enemies as they give in to corporate and political pressures and prejudice. Media ownership patterns are changing, causing ulterior interests to be served, accompanied by the loss of editorial objectivity and independence as commercial interests and political power set the rules and parameters. Now, perhaps more than ever before, independent objectivity in journalism is a near impossible dream.
But it continues to be worth a try, even indispensably so. For, against this almost apocalyptic background, journalism and the media still occupy a noble place at the table of democracy. Without a free, independent and robust media that at least strives for the highest degree of objectivity, no democracy will survive. It’s a self-evident truth that doesn’t require any explaining or proof.
There are many definitions offered by different scholars and institutions on the role of the media, but all basically point at the same thing. In a nutshell one can say that a free andskilled media striving for maximum objectivity is an essential component of any democratic society, providing the news, information and diversity of ideas which the polity require to make responsible, informed decisions.
In addition, it serves as part of the democratic system of checks and balances in that it ensures that elected officials uphold their oaths of office and best perform their duties, while exposing dereliction, abuse of power, and corruption. It casts a spotlight on human suffering, social ills,and environmental degradation, so that these may be corrected. It also highlights human excellence, provides a moral compass, and places within reach of all humans the advances in science and technology. The media serves as the eyes and ears of the public, its informer, its source of basic knowledge, its conscience, its voice of reason, and as its guardian. In this capacity, even if it is not part of government and never must be, it takes its essential place right up there alongside the three arms of government – the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.
Back in 1942, as the free world was mobilised in opposition to Hitler’s totalitarianism, Henry R Luce, the publisher of Time Inc., set up a panel of scholars with his friend Robert Maynard Hutchins, a legal and educational philosopher, on the state of the American press at the time. Distrust of the media had become pervasive at the time, so Luce sought a philosophical inquiry that would reaffirm the foundations of freedom in the United States and help the public to better understand the purpose and function of the press.
The Hutchins Commission as the panel became known, eventuallymade a strong case for the special status of the freedom of expression that includes media freedom, and which it characterised as the basic social and political liberty from which all others follow.
So, should we be concerned for the media’s imminent demise? Today, distrust of the media is once again pervasive and totalitarianism is on the march, as we saw when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to invade neighbouring Ukraine in a mad grab to reclaim some illusive ‘glorious past’ and to stick it to the West. Which makes the findings and advice of the Hutchins Commission as relevant as ever. There are other totalitarian regimes as well where the media, as in Putin’s Russia, are not welcome. In contrast, some free democracies welcome the media; others tolerate them.
In debates around the globe about the war in Ukraine and the issues that caused it, the media frequently finds itself in the dock, accused of bias and advancing one or the other agenda in the context of global polarisation and a realignment of forces, while also having to struggle to fulfil its traditional role. This is the case in South Africa too where these debates have been particularly virile on social media.
Juxtaposed to this, writing in his weekly newsletter to the public on May 8 this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa made the case that a ‘thriving democracy needs a free media’. His chosen topic was informed by the news of the latest World Press Freedom Index having shown that South Africa had significantly improved its ranking, moving up ten places from 35th in the world in 2022 to 25thmost free press this year.So, South Africans should be pleased that media freedom is alive and well here at home.
Which is why it was all the more surprising that when the Russians and the Alex Mafia sought to silence two important media voices, the bulk of the rest of South Africa’s media remained absolutely silent. So did our government and the president who had less than three months earlier so vigorously extolled the virtues of media freedom. Daily Maverick and News24 reported their own cases respectively. The South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) issued a statement of condemnation, as did the International Press Institute and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) regarding the Russian incident. But that was it. All the rest remained silent as if they too had been muzzled.
That in itself is alarming. But, focusing on the Russian matteronly, the context in which it occurred –relating toRussia’s current situation and South Africa’s shifting international relations focus – was even more alarming.
The media and press freedom in South Africa has along and mostly proud history, going all the way back to 1800. Over two centuries our media, apart from providing general news, have mostly fiercely protected their independence and in some or other way fought against injustice and oppression. However, by the mid-twentieth century, the South African media was in crisis, divided between those who supported Afrikaner nationalism and its apartheid dream, and those who fought it. Censorship was frequently and widely imposed; journalists were harassed with some fleeing the country; and various government-opposing newspapers were shut down. But despite the difficulties, much of our media continued to propagate for liberty, democracy and reason, playing an important role in the struggle to end apartheid and introduce democracy.
After the 1994 democratic elections, South Africa’s media welcomed in a new era of its greatest freedom to date – press freedom for the first time was guaranteed in the new Constitution adopted in 1996. And while for the greater part it has been honoured since, there were some attempts by the ANC government in the Jacob Zuma era to control the media and the dissemination of information via thecontroversial Protection of State Information Bill – the so-called Secrecy Bill – and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal. Both died something of a quiet death after years of noise and controversy, although neither idea has ever been fully shut down.
There have been other worrying examples of attempts to muzzle the media, not least of all by the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Members of this party have assaulted journalists, while the party has banned some publications from attending its functions. This became particularly prevalent after some sections of the media shone a light on the EFF’s alleged role in the VBS Bank scandal.
Nonetheless, in May, President Ramaphosa summed up the current state of our media with these words: “Media freedom, like so many of the rights contained in our Constitution, is hard won. It thrives in an environment where the media itself exercises due caution to be credible, accurate, fair and truthful always.In the end, the state of our media is not defined by its ranking on an index, but by how it contributes to building a vibrant democracy with an informed, empowered and active citizenry.” He forgot to add the words, “and vice versa”.
Which brings us back to the Daily Maverick, Russia and the Russia-Africa Summit. The summit came at a pivotal moment in South Africa’s foreign relations. For the past number of years, it had rhetorically and in geopolitical power plays shifted away from its traditional Western partners and into the embrace of China and Russia. Although on the Russian front this friendship remains unrewarded by means of trade, still only a miniscule 1%.
Already with the earlier shift towards China, we saw a Pretoria overtly willing to do its new friend’s bidding – unfriending Taiwan and banning it to oblivion, while repeatedly refusing the Dalai Lama entry into the country, and keeping quiet about Chinese human rights atrocities visited upon the Uyghurs among many others. Much of this took place within the emerging geopolitical platform of BRICS of which South Africa has become a proud member, although apart from offering a talk shop for grandiose schemes to counter the West, the benefits are still few and not that clear either.
More recently South Africa has been widely criticised over its various engagements with Russia, all pointing to a growing bias in favour of the Kremlin against Ukraine. This has raised the unfortunate spectre of possible Western sanctions and loss of trade benefits, although at this stage still probably unlikely. Nonetheless, no good reason has yet been given for this love affair, other than vague references to the ANC’s ‘historical relationship’ with the Soviet Union. A fact conveniently overlooked is that both Russia and Ukraine were part of that particular union.
The Ramaphosa government’s protestations and claims of ‘non-alignment’ and ‘neutrality’are as much a fairytale as any claim that the world’s media are 100% objective. There’s no such thing. In international relations unfettered non-alignment and neutrality also don’t exist – there’s always a twist or a bias somewhere.
A South Africa increasingly beholden to Moscow also comes against a background of growing Russian meddling in other countries’ affairs, especially elections, as in the USA for instance. South Africa will be holding crucial elections next year, with the ANC for the first time facing the real prospect of losing power. For Moscow that would be a big blow.Will it seek to use its sophisticated digital tools to try and keep the ANC in power? If so, a nosy and too free press would be very problematic.
These developments also come at a time when Putin’s Russia is increasingly isolated because of the war in Ukraine, and he desperately needs to win friends and influence people. Where better than in Africa, where he promises free grain on the one hand, and uses his Wagner mercenaries to recolonise countries on the other. South Africa offers Putin a pivotal foothold for the advancement of such a diabolical play. Again, a nosy and free press would be most unwelcome.
In South Africa, directed by the ANC and likeminded political actors, and spread by the legions of social media commentators, the narrative has become decidedly pro-Russian, and much more subdued in the case of Ukraine. To attack Russia and defend Ukraine is frowned upon, even harshly rejected by some. That’s the way both Putin and the ANC like it. But it’s also a sin the Daily Maverick has been guilty of.
And it’s also the only obvious reason at hand one can find as to why Daily Maverick, a newspaper with considerable domestic influence and reach, was banished from the Russia-Africa Summit. Unless the Kremlin’s summit organisers are scared the newspaper would have abused Russian hospitality and stooped to exposing more of Russia’s rotten, undemocratic underbelly while there. And while Putin was rallying his African champions and inciting them against the West, he certainly didn’t want some free and pro-democracy rag around that would cast hideous aspersions on his Africa designs. After all, in Putin’s Russia such vocal journalists and opposition politicians are either jailed, murdered or driven out of the country where they are later poisoned.
Attending the Russia-Africa Summit was a South African delegation led by President Ramaphosa, there by courtesy of South African taxpayers. Among the things Putin and Ramaphosa had to discuss, was the BRICS summit to be held in South Africa, which Putin is unable to attend because of an international war crimes arrest warrant. Not only will the BRICS summit be on South African soil, but once again South African taxpayers are footing the bill. So, it undeniably stands to reason that South Africans had every right to expect that their media could freely attend the St Petersburg affair and report on the shenanigans taking place there. But the Kremlin decided otherwise.
The South African government’s refusal to comment or condemn the Russian decision, is a devastating indictment of an ANC government willing to allow a rogue foreign government to undermine one of the pillars of our own democracy. To stay silent could well be the first small step on an incremental journey of losing our hard-won freedoms and our democracy. The more we allow the likes of China and Russia to dictate to us what we may or may not do, the less secure becomes the future of our own democracy.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst and journalist.
All views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect DDP views.