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Media Freedom: fact or fiction?

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Picture: Michael Walker/African News Agency (ANA Files) – Media freedom, but for who? For voices like mine, who have spoken out loud on issues of land injustice, white privilege, and the failure of the ANC to herald in true transformation, socio-economic justice, and equity? We may not be imprisoned or physically harmed but we are kept on the peripheries of a media beholden to the master’s voice, says the writer.

By Kim Heller

In the craft of today’s journalism, the silence of stories not told are too often the punctuation marks of an unfree media. Often these untold stories are the inconvenient ones which would sit uncomfortably on the front pages of popular, so-called independent newspapers, and which would disturb the easy cadence of prime-time news bulletins.

So, they are readily blotted out. And citizens are none the wiser, even in countries that are said to be champions of media freedom. In the words of academic and prolific US author Noam Chomsky, “people not only don’t know what’s happening to them, they don’t even know that they don’t know”.

Studies on media freedom are encyclopaedic. They tend to focus on visibly tangible measures such as the configuration of a country’s legislation to safeguard journalists, freedom of expression, plurality of media voices and the free functioning of an “independent press”.

There are voluminous columns of scholarly statistics and ever-ready inkwells of impeccable indexes which shape our perception about media freedom. They either reassure us about the well-being of our very own democracy or serve as an early warning shot that civil liberties are under attack.

The most recent Freedom in the World 2023 study by the US based non-profit organisation, Freedom House, points to a worldwide decline in media freedom over the last decade. According to this study “in some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector”.

The study details how attacks on media are coming from leaders of democracies, who should be “press freedom’s staunchest defenders”. The report notes the “explicit attempts” by political leaders “to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favourable coverage”. Benjamin Franklin once wrote “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech”.

The Freedom House study illustrates how this decline is linked to a global fall of democracy itself. For the Freedom House researchers “the erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming”. The study found that in 2022, there were close to 157 countries and territories across the world that were lacking in media freedom and freedom of expression.

Picture: Fethi Belaid /AFP – Tunisian journalists protest in front of the Prime Minister’s office in the capital Tunis on February 16, 2023, in defence of freedom of expression and against the persecution of journalists.

The latest press freedom index developed by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), a Paris based non-profit organisation found that of all African counties, Eritrea, and Egypt scores worst of all for press freedom. In the Continent, the Seychelles, Namibia, and South Africa scores highest, for press freedom

The RSF report cites how the Egyptian media landscape is a grove of government aligned outlets. The report notes how after the country’s 2013 coup, there was a severe crackdown on those critical of government and supportive of opposition parties. The report sets out a dismal picture of how the government uses its Intelligence apparatuses to restrict access to credible information and fuel conspiracy theories, disinformation, and animosity toward the political opposition. It is a dangerous state of being.

As Harry Truman said in 1950, “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

Egypt is a war zone for journalists – The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded how 12 journalists had been killed, 21 imprisoned, and another went missing in the country in 2022. Egypt is among the worst 3 countries worldwide and it is the worst on the Continent for the high number of journalists languishing in prison.

In Eritrea, the terrain for journalists is torrid. Independent media has been shut down and 16 journalists are currently imprisoned. Worldwide there is an increase of journalists being imprisoned. In 2021, the figure of almost 300 is a sorry inducement of the lack of media freedom.

In many respects, it is easier to judge freedom of media in places like Egypt and Eritrea where civil liberties, including press freedom and freedom of expression, are so tightly restricted, and so blatantly violated. For in these countries the ugly blueprint of media censure is visible for all to see and the punitive attacks on journalists is ever- present. It is easier to judge the real state of media freedom in places where dissent can mean a death sentence for a journalist, whether this is career wise or life wise. It is more difficult to judge media freedom in a country, where on the surface, all looks good, free, and fair.

South Africa fares well on the issue of media freedom. Not only is it in the top five in the Continent in the RSF study, but it also fares extremely well in the Freedom House report. It scores 3 out of 4 for having a free and independent media, and full marks (4 out of 4) for freedom of expression on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution.

Media freedom is desirous. But freedom for who? And freedom for which ideas? The story of media freedom and freedom of expression in South Africa is certainly a less rosy one for those of us who go against the grain or write of inconvenient or disruptive truths. We are afforded less space in newspapers, quietly and surreptitiously excluded from television programmes on socio-political issues, and slowly and surely, and not so subtly dislodged from career advancement and opportunities.

For voices like mine, who have spoken out loud on issues of land injustice, white privilege, and the failure of the ANC to herald in true transformation, socio-economic justice, and equity, we do not feel the comfort of media freedom or freedom of expression. We may not be imprisoned or physically harmed but we are kept on the peripheries of a media beholden to the master’s voice to which we do not subscribe.

The great political theorists, Marx and Engels wrote how the master narrative in societies is not the fabric of free expression but constructed by the ruling class to express and justify their position and interests. Media, in this respect, is a distribution mechanism of ruling class ideology and interests, rather than an instrument for ordinary people’s expression or interest.

In the end, reassuring statistics on media freedom and freedom of expression are little comfort for those of us who sing our own tune.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.