Tuesday, January 19, 2021

SADC countries turn to legislation to silence media

The widespread rumour that the Office of the President wants to ban the Blackberry is symptomatic of the anxieties of Southern African Development Community citizens about the increasing encroachment of the governments into private communication spaces.

The crime of the Blackberry is that it bypasses the spying instruments of the Directorate of Intelligence Services, the secret police and State House.

The rumour, if it is one, could lead to legislation barring sale of the product. Otherwise, the same aim could be achieved by way of regulation of communications service providers.

Banning of the Blackberry would go quite a distance in completing the circle of laws and regulations on cyberspace governance, the media communications Act, establishment of the directorate of intelligence services, the army, the penal code and constitutional powers of the president and the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs.

Both are permitted by the constitution to declare journalists and others disaffected residents or prohibited immigrants without appeal to the courts.

The argument can be made, that the cumulative effect of this legislation, and the manner of its application, militates against the constitutional right of citizens to privacy, the freedoms of expression and association and the participatory democracy. The Kalafatis case, contrary to the protestations of the DIS, implicates them in the murder of John, and others whose cases were not as demonstrative of the willingness of the state to kill where it believes its interests have been injured. Even as the law provides for capital punishment, the ruling regime prefers the shortcut of settling its scores at nightclubs. Ironically, these are the very venues which are blamed for violent crime, rape, transmission of HIV and accidents on the roads, but they provide good cover for justice outside the courts.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma survived two cases in the highest courts of that country, one associated with the notorious arms deal which was exposed by the press at the tail end of first black president, Nelson Mandela’s term. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, was as bold as to defrock Zuma of the vice presidency, so that he might better face the music to which he danced with the likes of Durbanite celebrity dealer, Shabir Sheik. The convicted arms dealer was released mysteriously under Zuma’s watch, having successfully subverted Mbeki’s presidency at the Polokwane congress of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Zuma was not done with the courts. He fought a lively battle defending himself against charges of improper sexual dealings with a young former child of ‘the struggle’. He was prudent enough to take a shower to avert any harm that could happen as a result of his deference, according to Zulu custom, to the girl’s pleas for sexual help.

The shower has since followed him to every place where he might come into contact with women, and it threatened to rear its head once more when the president met the queen of England.

The courts found Zuma ‘not guilty’ largely on ‘technicalities’ in both cases. He likes them.
These cases gave him to good reason to keep a personal grudge against the radios and newspapers that kept the public abreast of all developments at the courts. More recently, Weekly Mail and Guardian attempted a revival of the arms deal, presumably, in the light of new evidence.
This attempt finds Jacob Zuma as president, his party in the process of passing a ‘protection of information act’ under the pretext of safe keeping of the security of the country.

Its effect, the journalists argue, will be to pre-empt the work of The Mail and Guardian and others, in their attempt to expose current suspect dealings at the arms industry, possibly involving leading members of the government.

The law follows utterances of ANC youth leader on his visit to Botswana, that he will advise that South Africa should adopt Botswana’s model of ‘the public broadcaster’; one in which the government owns and controls all functions of the broadcaster. The fa├ºade was given at Kgotla that the recently passed Broadcasting Act would permit an element of private ownership in partnership with the government. Nothing has been heard of the shape of shareholding at Radio Botswana or Btv since. In reality, things remain as they always were, save for the increase in paperwork at the Attorney General’s office and Parliament.

Malema, quite evidently misconstrued Thabo Mbeki’s view, expressed on a visit to former President, Festus Mogae, that the current configuration of the South African Broadcasting Corporation is not reflective of the demographics of South Africa.

Mbeki’s concern was with rectifying the lack of proportional representation of the SABC with regard to editorial policy, management, and appreciation of the new political dispensation that wanted equitable contributions of all races, women, ethnic groupings and the vulnerable sections of the population such as the elderly, children and the disabled.

Malema ÔÇô Zuma’s ally at Polokwane, also sharing the pain of the public exposure of his association with the beneficiaries of the arms deal ÔÇô clearly wanted politicisation of the SABC for the exclusive enjoyment of the ANC, following the Botswana model. (The effective execution of this policy also requires the occasional appearance of the opposition in order to entrench the myth of public ownership).

Ironically, the SABC model created by apartheid South Africa, is closer to the universally accepted shape of ‘public media’, that the type championed by the leading lights of the liberation movement who now run the state.

Nelson Mandela opposed the new law, as did the late illustrious freedom fighter and cabinet minister, Ronald Kasrils. They would have understood – without the burden of running battles on the wrong side of the law – the meaning of the written word and spirit of the constitution, the most exemplary in the region for its reflection of the highest aspirations of the citizens.
South Africa enjoys the advantage of a ‘rights’ oriented constitution that affirms the entitlement of citizens and their various independent groupings to comment on the shape of government and governance.

The new ‘democratic dispensation’ finds an established jurisprudence and juridical structure, that, even if it served the whites best, set out a way of working with justice that shuns manipulation of the law for the interests of powerful individuals.

The promulgation of the protection of information law, had it been definitive in its description of ‘national security’, limiting its operations strictly to that territory, would not have been objectionable to the journalists. This law, the journalists and organisations of civil society say, is all embracing and virtually places all issues that would be of interest to the public and the press out of bounds.

The ruling elite, in spite their vigorous and painful struggles for ‘freedom’, has in the majority of cases appropriated the institutions left behind by the minority governments and colonial regimes in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Angola for protection of their personal and private interests against the imminent demands for expanded democracy and a fairer distribution of benefits of the economy.
The passing of parallel laws in Zimbabwe within the decade was enough cause for the opposition MDC to list among its demands, the renunciation of the press laws that inhibited the newspapers, radio and television stations from performing their service to the public.

It was public knowledge that what appeared in the law defining the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation as a public broadcaster, had in fact been bought out by the ruling oligarchy at the Zimbabwe African National Union.

The traditional rivalry between ZANU and the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) gave the former even more reason to firm up its control of the ‘state’ media to undermine its opposition. The apparent campaign in the western press against Mugabe’s rule, especially after 1990, caused him to ban the BBC and its representatives.

In Angola, Jonas Savimbi’s relentless bush war against the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, seemed to give the ruling party eternal control of the state media also guaranteeing President Do Santos the presidency till death do us part. The media services in Swaziland are the preserve of King Mswati and his indunas.

Where the expectation would have been the liberalisation of the laws and institutions of the press would serve democracy more effectively in the new ‘democratic dispensations’ the opposite appears to have taken root. The ‘peace dividend’ resulting from the decolonisation of the region has done nothing to depress spending on armies and secret institutions of state.

Instead, the ruling elite had discovered in the ‘Arab’ inspired terrorism, a replacement for the communist scare. And indeed, the distant ‘recession’ has done nothing to dampen the appetite of the post-colonial governments for arms and expenditure on spy organisations on the one hand, and suppression of the press, civil society and active citizens on the other.

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