Robert Brand
Robert Brand

Newspapers without government … How about that, Mr President?

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States of America, once famously said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

That was before he became president.

After he’d experienced a taste of office, he quickly became less enchanted with the fourth estate. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” he wrote halfway into his second term. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” And a few years later: “I deplore … the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them … These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our functionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief.”

Look up the meaning of “ordure“, and you’ll start to understand how Jefferson felt. But never, not even when his disgust with the media plumbed such depths that he likened newspapers to excrement, did Jefferson advocate censorship, press curbs or repression of journalists. He well understood the crucial role of free expression in a democracy.

“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth,” he wrote in 1804. “Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Jefferson’s words still ring true today.

The media should be able to take criticism, just as they like to dish it out. Some healthy tension between media and government is good for democracy, because it is the media’s job to hold government accountable. But, as recent events in South Africa have shown, there is a fine line between criticism and crackdown. And in the current atmosphere of hostility towards the media, which seems to have percolated through all levels of government, the danger is real.

That is why the investigation of the Sunday Times is disturbing, even though my former colleague Mondli Makhanya has not yet been hauled off to jail. Although, in my previous post, I raised doubts about the Sunday Times’ reporting of its own travails, that doesn’t mean that I think the investigation is justified, or that I believe Makhanaya and his colleague should be prosecuted. In another Thought Leader post, Anton Harber makes a strong argument for a public interest defence, and I agree. The Sunday Times and its editor should be applauded, not vilified, for its courage in general in exposing abuse of power and corruption in government. If it — very occasionally — gets things wrong, that is the price of media freedom.

What’s more, the government’s hostile reaction to the Sunday Times is setting the tone for other levels of government, and we’re already seeing the effects here in our little outpost, Grahamstown. The municipal government has in the past year moved from publicly criticising the local newspaper, Grocott’s Mail, to refusing to interact with its journalists, to withdrawing its advertising. It has taken the step from criticism to repression, and, as Thomas Jefferson would have understood, the losers, ultimately, will be the people of Grahamstown.

The municipality’s cynical move could be the death knell for a newspaper which was named Best Small Town Newspaper in Sanlam’s Community Press awards last month, and scooped prizes for editorial comment, hard news and features. As it is, the withdrawal of advertising and refusal to comment to Grocott’s Mail means that the people of Grahamstown do not have access to the information they need to exercise their rights as citizens; if the municipality succeeds in putting the newspaper out of business, as they undoubtedly hope to do, the situation will be much worse. And if every municipality in South Africa followed Grahamstown’s lead, it would be the end of South Africa’s commmunity media.

That is a real danger to media freedom in South Africa.