The tense relationship between the media and the state is nothing new. It was an issue when the apartheid government was in power, and remains to be an issue today. Speaking at Think!Fest, Siviwe Mdoda, of the Right2Know campaign, said that the current move to control the media and access to information began in 2009 – but was ignored by many people as it was seen as a middle-class issue.
That has now changed. Take housing protests. If the people needing houses are unable to access delivery information – like budgets and building targets – then how can they protest? Mdoda said that information is vital to every struggle that we have.
Initially, the fight for control of content and the suppression of voices was rationalised with a racist narrative. Blade Nzimande, one of the most vocal advocates for control, has implied that because the media is still controlled by white companies they don’t support a black majority government and will use any chance to criticise the state.
“Just because you don’t agree with a publication, it doesn’t mean it must be shut down,” said Mdoda. “That’s censorship. Another publication will say something else, so you should let the reader decide what they want to believe and read. That is the function of democracy.”
Even the recourse of the Public Access to Information Act offers limited respite. The 30-day application period affords defendants ample time to obscure information and there are few consequences for organisations that refuse to comply.
He also denounced the monopoly of telecommunication companies, which make South Africa one of the most expensive places to communicate. Because of this, we cannot advance education. For instance, one of the first places children turn to when doing homework is Google, offered Mdoda. For this reason cheap access and minimal regulation are essential.
An increasingly popular way for the state to avoid information leaks is by making their employees sign non-disclosure agreements. What this essentially means is that even when people see corruption around them, they cannot report it because of the agreement.
Mdoda concludes by saying that this is just another example of how we live in a world where those who shout the loudest about democracy, practice it the least.