There has been much gnashing of teeth at the decision made by the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee, to remove a photo of Bretty Murray’s The Spear from the newspaper’s website.
When it comes to the media, the ANC has brought all its indignant rage down on one publication – it has been useful to do so, as its single-minded bullying is reminder of who’s boss, a flexing of muscle that menacingly reminds both the media and South Africans generally of the even greater fury the party can unleash should it take umbrage to a paper’s content.
The ANC certainly has the power to intimidate the media, fostering a climate of fear, hysteria and even hatred. Its behaviour can certainly inculcate a mindset of self-censorship amongst the nation’s journalists – which is so much easier and more effective than employing the cumbersome mechanics of official censorship, although through its artful manipulation of the Film and Publication Board you could argue it is using this approach too.
But what the ANC, the City Press and the brow-furrowed chattering classes have lost sight of is that this is a changed world, one in which the old mediums (print, TV) still have an important role, but are far from being the only means by which ideas and information can be conveyed. Indeed, these entities have become absorbed into a chaotic web in which information (and that includes presidential penises or at least the depiction thereof) being shared and streamed with lightning speed and astonishing reach.
The ANC might be able to scare the City Press into removing The Spear, but it won’t be able to do the same to the thousands of other websites that have posted the image, or to the people that have shared it on social networks or emailed it to their friends.
It is for this reason, that the ruling has failed in its attempt to quash creative freedom, even as it has exposed its contempt for the constitution which guarantees it. It will again fail when, in the months and years ahead, there emerges artworks, writings, films and more that critique, satirise, mock or hold the ANC or its leaders to account.
As the events of this week has shown, the ANC’s strategies to shrink the space available for dissent and freedom of expression might sometimes seem effective. But we need to remind ourselves that this space has expanded into the online realm and beyond, to where it is out of the party’s reach.
The Arab Spring proved that social media has become a remarkable, unstoppable and overpowering force to keep information and free thought flowing; a means to challenge and criticise power. In the future, we will see this being wielded by more and more people – the massive success of MXit in South Africa is an exciting harbinger of this social media explosion.
And, thankfully for our democracy, this means that the ANC’s control of the public broadcaster and its coercion of “old” media will become increasingly irrelevant.
The genie is out of the bottle – and we’re all the better of for that.