[In]famous ANC promises 1: free media

by The Editor

SERIES: A good quote can hold within it a thousand separate insights, just as surely as some poorly constructed thought can reveal someone as a fool. Quotable Quotes looks at what is said, what was said and, on occasion, how the two compare. In this edition: Believe it or not, the ANC has not always advocated for state regulation. Indeed, there was a time when it spoke out against the very idea.

Quotable Quotes

Restricting the flow of democracy’s lifeblood

Some 18 years into our new democracy there is a good argument to be made South Africa is a bit like a stuck record – the ANC keeps making the same promises and keeps failing to deliver. No doubt the upcoming State of the Nation Address will see the President set out the same general undertakings, yet again. But not everything is so predictable. The ANC’s decision, for example, to explore the possibility of a media appeals tribunal, would seem to be a departure from the party’s previous position on the importance of a free and independent fourth estate.

The ANC Draft Discussion Document on the possibility of a tribunal states the following:

Our objectives therefore are to vigorously communicate the ANC’s outlook and values (developmental state, collective rights, values of caring and sharing community, solidarity, ubuntu, non-sexism, working together) versus the current mainstream media’s ideological outlook (neo-liberalism, a weak and passive state, and overemphasis on individual rights, market fundamentalism, etc.)

In other words, the ANC believes the media advocates the wrong values, values not in line with its vision for South Africa, and so it needs to be regulated, to bring its ideological values in line with those of the ANC.

Compare that, however, to some of its previous commitments on the media, its role and purpose in a democratic society:

The ANC will strive for an open society that encourages vigorous debate. People must be free to express their views without fear, including criticising the government of the day. Freedom of the media will be essential for a flourishing of democracy.” [ANC 1994 National Election Manifesto]

Well, that’s a good general principle. But the ANC has been even more specific. In 1992 the party produced a draft media charter. It stands in stark contrast to its more recent document. It concerns itself primarily with the restructuring of things post National Party, but its premise is entirely ideologically different. Here is the money quote:

The basic principles around which a media charter would revolve is maximum openness within the context of a democratic constitution and Bill of Rights. Thus, for instance, it would be erroneous to advocate the setting up of bodies which determine what society should and should not read, hear or watch. Rather, judicial procedures should be effected if and when otherwise ordinary laws of the land are violated.

That would appear to rule out precisely the possibility of a tribunal. But perhaps the ultimate quote, the clincher, comes from Nelson Mandela:

Truth does indeed have immense power; yet it remains extremely elusive. No single person, no body of opinion, no political or religious doctrine, no political party or government can claim to have a monopoly on truth. For that reason truth can be arrived at only through the untrammelled contest between and among competing opinions, in which as many viewpoints as possible are given a fair and equal hearing. It has therefore always been our contention that laws, mores, practices and prejudices that place constraints on freedom of expression are a disservice to society. Indeed these are the devices employed by falsehood to lend it strength in its unequal contest with truth. The removal from South Africa’s Statute books of the scores of laws, ordinances, regulations and administrative measures that have empowered government to abridge the rights of South African citizens to know the truth, or which repress the freedom of the media to publish, or which limit citizens’ rights to express themselves are, in our view, essential for a democratic political climate. Freedom of expression, of which press freedom is a crucial aspect, is among the core values of democracy that we have striven for. To realise and institutionalise these freedoms requires that, in the first instance, we have a government representative of and based on the will of all the people. A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens. It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society. I have often said that the media are a mirror through which we can see ourselves as others perceive us, warts, blemishes and all. The African National Congress has nothing to fear from criticism. I can promise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our considered view that such criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people’s expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe.” [Nelson Mandela; 14 February 1994; “Address to the International Press Institute Congress”]

Definitive stuff. And not much more to say after that. I wonder if any one in the current ANC executive would be willing to present to the public an equally stirring and principled position on the subject today?