By Zuki Mqolomba
I woke up to a wardrobe dilemma this morning. Given the choice of a litany of unattractive black attire I’d long abandoned given the season, I was rattled by the political choice imposed on me on this ordinary Tuesday-turned-extraordinary. By accident, omission or actual deliberation, my choice of “shirt, skirt, shoes and bra” held political symbolism: notwithstanding whether one was sympathetic or opposed to the “cause of freedom” or simply put, plain indifferent. Today I was relegated to either protagonist, willing participant, passenger, observer, shadow, and — worst of all — hater.
South Africa’s public discourse has been dominated by sensationalist frenzy as media houses have raged around the ruling party’s desire to institute the infamous “Protection of Information Bill”, the so-called “secrecy bill”, “media bill”, “apartheid bill” etc.
Whereas media activists have criticised the ANC for using the state apparatus repressively to ward off dissent, the ruling party insists on its own narrative, which is that it is legitimate to limit media freedoms so as to safeguard national security.
Clearly both state and media have vested interests: neither is ideologically neutral. Both sides occupy contested terrains, reflecting the ideological battle and power relations based on race, class and gender in our society.
While the motives of the government are questionable, particularly in light of its resistance to a public-interest defence clause, this debate needs be understood in a wider context.
Firstly, to the ordinary South African, media freedom is a “blue cheese struggle”: a concern of the socially privileged, who can appropriate it, and who can seek judicial recourse for inaccurate and sensational reporting. Such freedom is inaccessible to ordinary folk. For the most part, the experiences of the privileged do not correlate with the daily bread and butter issues of ordinary South Africans.
Secondly, to the state, “Black Tuesday” represents a disingenuous call by a monopoly industry hell-bent on resistance or, worse still, are irresponsive to calls for responsible journalism
Undoubtedly, access to information remains an integral right in free/open societies. The media plays an integral role in exposing corruption and holding government accountable to its electorate.
Equally, the media is integral in countering the abuses that come with excesses of this very power. The media has the responsibility to use/distribute information responsibly and in ways that do not compromise individual human rights or national security.
This media still needs to commit itself to an equally important campaign: the social contract of ethical journalism. Included in this campaign would be an overhaul of deeds and practice, as well as a renewed commitment to internal democratisation and transformation.
In other words, the media needs to champion its own responsibilities with as much vigour, and in ways that are equally binding, as its campaign against the “secrecy bill”.
Should the bill include a public-interest defence clause that will serve as a safety valve allowing for disclosure if it clearly outweighs any harm to national security? Of course, yes.
Should the bill provide for legal recourse for undue classification in line with the Promotion of Access to Information Act. Absolutely yes. The constitutionality of the bill depends on it.
The bill must meet the standards of constitutionality and aspirations for freedom, as much as it should make reasonable provision to provide protection against the harms caused by the mishandling or disclosure of classified information.
However, until the media recognises the centrality of media responsibility in the freedoms/rights discourse and as an integral component of its cultural pulse, then the evident contradictions in its anti-“secrecy bill” narrative will remain unresolved.
So, for me, clad all in blue, Black Tuesday was in fact a Blue Tuesday.
Zuki Mqolomba is completing an MA at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.