The recent release of veteran journalist and editor Bheki Makhubu from a Swaziland jail should have been a momentous occasion for media freedom and freedom of expression activists in southern Africa. Instead, it has turned out to be a missed opportunity to inspire confidence, re-energise practitioners and consumers alike, and call the bluff on repressive regimes.
In its own right, and to be fair to Bheki and his family, the moment is indescribable for what it means to them, having been separated from each other for almost two years. It definitely was not easy for Bheki’s wife, son, close friends and colleagues to cope without him.
Beyond the limited stream of media statements, news coverage, tweets and other social media posts, it seems as if the day of Bheki’s release from jail was just another ordinary day in the fight for democracy across the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) — dull and uneventful.
This muted response and apparent reluctance to seize the potency of the moment reveals various things, chief among them the failure of pro-democracy movements to celebrate important victories and milestones in protracted struggles such as the one for media freedom and freedom of expression in southern Africa. This attitude and behaviour has, wittingly or unwittingly, become the very antithesis to the broader struggle for democracy in the region, much to the relief of dominant and repressive regimes.
Over the past two years, since Bheki’s incarceration, together with human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, there have been endless calls for the two’s “immediate” and “unconditional” release from jail. These calls were made in Swaziland, across SADC, into the rest of Africa and well into the international sphere with great impact and effect. It became hard to ignore the plight of these prisoners, including others such as Mario Masuku, as both coordinated and loosely coordinated messages about the injustice they were suffering spread.
Therefore, the release of the two, coming as it did in a deteriorating climate for media, journalism and free expression within SADC, should have been appropriated and used as a key moment for local and regional activists to consolidate and push back against growing repression. Hence, it is nothing short of a tragedy that this key moment has been allowed to pass without considerable highlight and is being allowed to fade into distant memory so soon as it has happened.
Meanwhile, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Angola, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and even South Africa, journalists are increasingly coming under fire from the state, and sometimes from big business. While there is a noticeable reduction in the number of physical attacks on journalists, the state — via its rhetoric and posturing — is sending very clear messages: truly independent, critical, investigative and robust media will not be tolerated.
That truly independent, critical, investigative and robust media are a prerequisite to democracy is a no-brainer. What is becoming fiercely contested terrain, however, is the environment in which media function and ought to function in a democracy. It is within this sphere that we begin to see draconian legislative proposals, policy ambiguities and inconsistencies, economic suffocation of media and overt violence. In recent times, there have also been growing concerns about the digital privacy, security and surveillance of journalists.
Safety of journalists, therefore, should not only concern the physical well-being and security of journalists, but begin to cater to the digital vulnerabilities they suffer, especially through the use of digital technology to enhance their work.
The urgency with which the state of media freedom and freedom of expression in SADC needs to be analysed, evaluated and (re?)ordered is quite clear within this context. Hence, any moment or opportunity that can be exploited for democratic benefit should be embraced and utilised to its fullest potential. Media freedom and freedom of expression activists have a particular duty to be on the lookout of such opportunities, seizing them and turning them into useful springboards for the realisation of hopes, dreams and aspirations carried by millions of SADC citizens, most of whom rely on media and their own personal acts of self-expression to make positive contributions towards democratisation in their individual countries.
In 2013, I moderated a discussion in which Bheki Makhubu was a participant. He was joined by female photojournalist Thoko Chikondi (Malawi), media manager Absalom Kibanda (Tanzania) and satirist Kiss Abrahams (Zambia). Topics under discussion included the state of media freedom and growing concerns on the safety of journalists in SADC.
During that time, Bheki was facing numerous threats from the state, Thoko had survived a brutal beating at Parliament in broad daylight, Absalom had just lost his left eye in an attack, and Kiss was being targeted for harassment. The characters might be different in 2015 but the conditions and tactics remain the same, if not worse.
It was Bheki and Thoko, more specifically, who spoke to the need for building an unshakable defence line for SADC media and journalists, whose backbone was the citizens, not just professional media freedom and freedom of expression activists.
It is a recommendation worth serious consideration.
Those who actively occupy the space for defending media freedom and freedom of expression must embrace the shifts — mostly digital — occurring in the sector and begin to innovate and programme in ways that bridge the emerging gaps between traditional media and new media. Media owners and media managers play a significant role in this regard, ensuring adequate resourcing and skilling of newsrooms as well as fostering innovation that strengthens, not compromises, the work of journalists.
A democracy without an independent and robust media will soon lend itself to tyranny. And, if “tyranny organises better than freedom”, as the French poet Charles Péguy once wrote, then its time for SADC media to become more inclusive and responsive to the citizens they deliver their products to. Crucially, a media that does not command the respect and support of citizens will soon become vulnerable and exposed to machinations of a rogue state.
Fellow journalist Josh Stearns has the last word: “People will stand up for journalism they value; they will defend it. But we have to ask them, we have to listen, and we have to stand with them. Journalists must understand that if we don’t engage the broader public in the fight for press freedom, then we have already lost.”