Democracy requires free flow of informationDate Released: Mon, 20 October 2014 10:11 +0200
By Anthea Garman
When the new editor of the Business Day visited the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies in September, he surprisingly talked less about doing business journalism and quite a lot about the precarious state of the freedom to know and use information in South Africa.
He titled his talk to staff and postgraduate students “the role of journalism in this time” but he had strong things to say, not so much about journalists as about other South Africans whom he feels are failing “to do their job as citizens”.
This is how Songezo Zibi put his view as an editor: “There are two constituencies in trouble: journalists and judges – who constantly rap people over the knuckles for not doing their jobs. The rest of society is not doing its job.
Shareholders don’t stand up. Sanef (the SA National Editors’ Forum) is not doing a terribly good job of rallying society. Journalists are doing what other people refuse to do. It’s a very isolated space for journalists right now… civil society doesn’t understand the responsibilities of democracy.”
Zibi then detailed a number of court cases and challenges brought by journalists against various sections of government and made the claim that it is media people who, on behalf of us all, are fighting for the right to know so that governance is transparent and accountable. And most often they are not asking for classified information to be released, but the information that according to our laws is already supposed to be in the public domain.
Later in the day when Zibi was talking to my students I asked him what provoked his standpoint on these issues in South Africa, he responded by saying how impacted he was in the post-9/11 moment when Americans were so willing to give up their freedoms to be safe.
He feels that this spirit of trading freedom for a dubious safety promised by governments now infects the world and our country too. Is Zibi right about our passivity as citizens – and consequently our parlous state?
Twenty years into our democracy we sit in a patchwork situation: some things we have got really right and some things we still have to sort out. It’s difficult to assess, quite often, how to judge the way we are being governed and whether to impute motive and blame.
Sometimes bad decisions are made not out of power hungry self-promotion, but out of a combination of factors like lack of creativity about how to do things differently, lack of resources and legacy structures which keep funnelling things down an old track.
I’m sometimes a bit amazed at the strident tone some journalists take towards government officials because I’m still of the opinion that we haven’t entirely lost the ability to talk to each other the way we did through the very rocky transition into Codesa, through the TRC and the making of our Constitution.
We have an ability to negotiate as South Africans that really is quite remarkable and we should keep honing this skill. But that being said, how will we know the difference between fumbling our way forward together as a nation and the increasing attitude (prevalent all over the world) that those in power are professionals who should be left alone to do their jobs because they know best.
This kind of thinking is also evident in the way power plays out now in South Africa. You can see it happening, for instance when journalists in parliament (or in municipalities) are told they have no right to attend committee meetings (which by law are still open) just because a new committee chair has decided so.
Fiat by the person in power is not the same as the law of the land and we need to be informed enough and strong enough to say no to that abuse of power.
Last year the researchers in the media and citizenship project (of which I’m a part) did a series of focus groups and interviews with young South Africans living in the Eastern Cape about their attitude to politics.
To a person, they are disillusioned, particularly with local government, and they feel fairly hopeless about their own lives improving.
Their trust in politicians is almost non-existent. But what was interesting is their voracious need to know what’s going on and their evident commitment to this country’s future.
As one young man put it to me, when I asked why: “I’m a citizen shareholder!” These words came back to me when Songezo Zibi spoke about a story he was managing by phone from Grahamstown which involved a shareholder revolt in a major company. He explained that those who actually own the company could remove the board of directors and he was watching this carefully.
Perhaps because we are new at democracy we don’t quite know the job description of citizen, so let’s take a leaf from business, let’s think of ourselves as shareholders.
The country is ours, those in government are there as directors and CEO.
We are the judges of their performance and we need good information to do this job well.
Let’s help the information providers by making sure that the space of free flow of information is kept open.