How freedom dies

2010-08-07 13:00
Japhet Ncube
I am one of those unlucky chaps who always find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The last time I tried to check out a shopping mall to impress a beautiful young woman, a cash heist turned bloody when the thugs shot at everything that moved.

I left the place crawling on my beer belly with the high-heeled, long-legged companion in tow. And I have not returned there since.

On Tuesday I was again in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the Hawks came for Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika, I had been waiting in the foyer of the Avusa building in Rosebank after a South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) meeting to plan a fightback to the ANC’s proposed Media Tribunal.

No sooner had we exchanged greetings after months of not seeing each other than the pack of plain clothes cops pounced on him.

Within seconds, they had shoved and pushed him out of the building as if he were some criminal.

The pangs of dejavu suddenly hit the bowels of my tummy.

Earlier that morning, dozens of journalists had gathered in Rosebank to moot ways to contest the ANC’s dubious plans to control the media.

The meeting felt like the biblical last supper, the night before Christ was to be handed over to his killers.

I have travelled down this road before and it is rocky and bumpy. And bloody, too.

I had to pinch myself several times to believe that I wasn’t dreaming of a meeting of journalists in Harare in early 2003 when the ruling Zanu PF of President Robert Mugabe had begun to tighten the screws on media freedom.

Back then, a group of concerned journalists, scared to their knickers, gathered at the Quill club in Harare, the favourite meeting place for media practitioners had begun to sober up to the fact that Big Brother was coming after them.

We woke up too late.

By 2003, the Zimbabwe Media Information Commission was fast becoming a reality. An information law had been passed to set up the commission which changed the system of media self-regulation to one of licensing journalists.

Government had begun to make incursions into media freedom from 2000 when the draft information law was passed.

By 2007, it was a fully grown beast which had put in place a system of total censorship.

Now in South Africa, Mandela’s country, I feel like I am in Zimbabwe all over again.

Just like the case with Zimbabwe back then, the writing has been on the wall since the ANC’s watershed conference in Polokwane in December 2007 when the ANC called for a media tribunal.

In the interim, the media has gone to sleep believing the ANC had forgotten its resolution. This takes me back to Zimbabwe.

As the country sank deeper into a political and economic morass, the media became the enemy.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of former trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai, launched in 1999, had become a pain in the backside for Mugabe and his cronies.

Zimbabwe wasn’t going to be the same.

The banning of the country’s only independent daily, The Daily News, followed in 2003, marking the official death of media freedom. It took seven short years for media freedom to die.

Listening to the language used by President Zuma, Jeremy Cronin, Blade Nzimande, Floyd Shivambu, Julius Malema and Gwede Mantashe who all involved in this spirited, self-serving campaign for the media tribunal, my sense of deja vu is acute.

It is the same language employed by former Zimbabwe Information Minister Jonathan Moyo and George Charamba, one of Mugabe’s propaganda experts.

The media is characterised as an alien force, aligned to the opposition and to faceless imperialists.

It is a media, they allege, largely out of step with the ambitions of a royal liberation movement.

Shivambu’s media statement on Tuesday afternoon confirmed my worst fears. By naming a list of investigative newspapers, he reveals a targeted campaign which excludes the public broadcaster and the tabloids which are generally not investigative.

These newspapers need to be “investigated” to “expose their ill-intentions and programme to sow divisions in the ANC and undermine its integrity”.

He allges: “Some of the owners and directors of these newspapers are active funders and leaders of opposition parties and this explains why the ANC and all its structures are under constant attack.”

It is the voice of Mugabe come back to haunt me. We in the media must wake up.

I listened to my colleagues at the SANEF meeting calling for engagement and believing the tribunal and the protection of information bill will not become law.

It’s a fool’s paradise.

I do not want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time ever again.