Na'eem Jeenah
Na'eem Jeenah

Free expression means nothing if it’s limited to the media

Steven Friedman wrote a brilliant post, “The people our national debate does not see or hear”. I began writing a comment in response to his post, but then realised it was too long and needed a post of its own.

Steven is absolutely correct. Too many of us who are involved in the media in some or other way think that democratic freedoms, particularly the right to free expression, is about the right to publish. And so the free-expression rights of poor communities are often treated by media people with the same attitude as they are treated by the authorities — as an irritant that needs to be gotten rid of or hidden away.

Hence, the recent question being obsessively asked (“Are media freedom and freedom of expression under threat?”) is asked in reference to the Sunday Times saga and other such “threats to the media”, but ignores the broader freedom of expression threat as experienced by poor communities.

Very few people realise that protests are the poor people’s media. Very few realise that ignoring the suppression of the right to protest is actually a contribution to a climate of the suppression of dissent and of the right to free expression. And many in the media are guilty of such a contribution to the violation of free-expression rights.

That is why the protest of Abahlali base Mjondolo in Durban got such little coverage outside of the few Durban media. Here was a march conducted after following all the necessary procedures: notification given to local authorities, all conditions met and so forth. It was a well-organised, legal march, recognised in terms of the Regulation of Gatherings Act. Yet it was brutally attacked and broken up by police — while the marchers were busy praying. Almost a dozen people were arrested, dozens injured.

Worse, hundreds of shack dwellers now feel that democratic protest action is not for them. When their organisation was finally allowed to hold a legal march and they had the assurance that it was legal, they were still not safe — this after a number of nasty experiences in trying to exercise their free-expression rights. In the past they have been prevented from leaving their shack settlements when leaving for protests. They have been shot at with rubber bullets and live ammunition. Their marches have been banned by the police with no reason. They have witnessed the abuse of the Constitution and the Regulation of Gatherings Act by local authorities determined to prevent them from protesting. They even had to launch an after-the-last-minute high court application to stop the police from preventing them from marching.

All this just so that they could be allowed to exercise a most basic democratic right — that to free expression. Yet, after all this, their recent experience can make anyone a cynic. Of course, the attempt was to suppress their action, deny them the right to express themselves, show them their place (as black people had to be shown “their place” during the days of apartheid, so too is there now a need to show poor people “their place”) and to intimidate them so seriously that they would not even try to protest again.

How many of these shack dwellers will wonder whether democracy is for them? Whether it is worth all the noise being made about it and the rights and freedoms it supposedly provides? How many of the rest of us will wonder the same? How many journalists realise that this attack is an attack against their freedom too?

Evidently, not too many journalists do realise this. That is why the attack against Abahlali received as little coverage as it did. That is why many protests these days are referred to in the media as “violent service-delivery protests”, as if that (whatever it means) is enough to prepare us to accept that the police will break it up and that’s just how things are.

I even remember seeing a report on e.tv a few weeks ago where the reporter referred to communities “using the option of violent protests”. As if they want to protest violently. Strangely, the video footage shown was of police opening fire on unarmed and peaceful protesters in Cape Town! How many journalists interrogate where the violence actually comes from in these “violent service-delivery protests”?

Freedom of expression means nothing if it is a right bestowed only on a privileged elite. If it is denied to poor people, it does not exist. And, if it is denied to poor people, then media people who think they are defending that right by simply insisting on their own right to publish are deluding themselves. Human rights only really exist when they are guaranteed for the “least among us”.