Voices

Is press freedom in peril?

2019-12-21 12:05

The political evolution – from Brexit, to the election of US President Donald Trump and other populist leaders in Africa and elsewhere to the rise of elected “strongmen” – has together tested the limits of people’s faith in democracy.

We all imagine the ideal democracy as one in which as many citizens as possible vote and the voters are armed with the most objective information. In this ideal world, the media operates freely and appropriates, to itself, the role of being the mirror of society.

Yet today only a fraction of the electorate is voting, and many are armed with a diet of hyped-up statistics and social media propaganda. Press freedom (everywhere) is more fragile now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Journalists increasingly face obstruction, hostility and violence as they investigate and report on behalf of the public.

The recent EFF people’s assembly became another warning sign that our media freedom is in peril. A journalist was called “domkop” and some media houses were prevented from covering the event. During his address EFF president, Julius Malema, described the Daily Maverick as a propaganda publication, saying it had always been aware of its standing with his party.

The Conversation argued that violence against the media isn’t new – history shows why it largely disappeared and has now returned. In the 19th century, attacks on the press were common. Violence and journalism were intertwined in American culture, largely because of the partisan politics most newspapers propagated.

The attacks on journalists were so common that Mark Twain, who worked as a journalist, lampooned them in his classic short story Journalism in Tennessee.

Twain’s satire about press violence tells the story of a young editor reporting to the office of The Morning Glory and Johnson County War-Whoop for his first day of work. When he turns in a brief roundup of local news reported by other outlets, his boss is surprised.

“Thunder and lightning!” he says. “Do you suppose my subscribers are going to stand such gruel as that? Give me the pen!”

Sub-Saharan Africa has not avoided the latest international decline in press freedom. Hatred towards journalists, attacks on investigative reporters, censorship (especially online and on social networks), and economic and judicial harassment all undermined independent reporting and quality journalism in a continent where press freedom saw significant changes last year.

According to this year’s Reporters Without Borders Report investigative journalism continues to be very dangerous in sub-Saharan Africa, even in countries far from the death throes of the civil war that threatens journalists in the Central African Republic. Ghana, Africa’s best-ranked country last year, has lost this status for failing to protect a group of investigative journalists who were threatened, especially by a ruling party MP, after making a documentary about Ghanaian soccer corruption. One of its members was gunned down on an Accra street in January this year.

It appears the cycle has now turned. Democracy is vulnerable to demagoguery.

Let’s face it, the fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent media is under attack, and part of the assault has come from unexpected sources who swear by the noble principles of freedom. Banning journalists from events, calling on followers to harass them and threatening women journalists with rape would make Thomas Sankara turn in his grave.

Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso, was not one for the empty revolutionary rhetoric and posturing without effective commitment to action. He was committed to taking real action in the real world. So, elected leaders should be press freedom’s staunchest defenders and not be explicit in attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favourable coverage.

Interestingly, this trend can be linked to a global decline in democracy itself. The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming. Assaults on media independence are frequently associated with power grabs by new or incumbent leaders, or with entrenched regimes’ attempts to crush perceived threats to their control.

On the other hand, populist leaders in democracies seek to secure and build on their gains by taming the press, continue to tighten the screws on dissenting voices, as any breach in their media dominance threatens to expose official wrongdoing or debunk official narratives.

I am sure we can relate why Amabhungane, Scorpio and News24 have been banned from EFF events.

According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World data, media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade, with new forms of repression taking hold in authoritarian countries, the most. If democratic powers cease to support media independence and impose no consequences for its restriction, the free press corps could be in danger of virtual extinction.

The threats to media freedom are real and concerning in their own right, their impact on the state of our democracy is what makes them truly dangerous. There is an obvious tension between journalists who are attempting to perform their proper democratic function and anti-democratic elements that are determined to retain power.

We dare not make the mistake of forgetting that journalists are, above other things, workers too! As with the other sites of production, media production spaces are simultaneously sites of struggle.

Journalists and other media workers struggle against the domination of capital over humankind. Their innovative and courageous work offers hope that even in the most desperate circumstances, those who are committed to distributing information in the public interest can find a way.

We must loathe all acts that objectify and intimidate journalists. We cannot write off media workers and working journalists as “reactionaries” due to what they are producing. Nothing is immutable. By the same token, media workers and journalists must struggle with their class brothers and sisters to liberate humanity.

Their future is tied inexorably to the rest of their class, just as the future of human progress is inexorably tied to democratic social transformation.

I believe press freedom can rebound from even lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity. The basic desire for democracy, including access to honest and fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished. It is never too late to renew the demand that these rights be protected.

Chris Maxon is a social commentator.


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February 23 2020