Na'eem Jeenah
Na'eem Jeenah

Free expression means nothing if it’s limited to the media

Steven Friedman wrote a brilliant post, “The people our national debate does not see or hear”. I began writing a comment in response to his post, but then realised it was too long and needed a post of its own.

Steven is absolutely correct. Too many of us who are involved in the media in some or other way think that democratic freedoms, particularly the right to free expression, is about the right to publish. And so the free-expression rights of poor communities are often treated by media people with the same attitude as they are treated by the authorities — as an irritant that needs to be gotten rid of or hidden away.

Hence, the recent question being obsessively asked (“Are media freedom and freedom of expression under threat?”) is asked in reference to the Sunday Times saga and other such “threats to the media”, but ignores the broader freedom of expression threat as experienced by poor communities.

Very few people realise that protests are the poor people’s media. Very few realise that ignoring the suppression of the right to protest is actually a contribution to a climate of the suppression of dissent and of the right to free expression. And many in the media are guilty of such a contribution to the violation of free-expression rights.

That is why the protest of Abahlali base Mjondolo in Durban got such little coverage outside of the few Durban media. Here was a march conducted after following all the necessary procedures: notification given to local authorities, all conditions met and so forth. It was a well-organised, legal march, recognised in terms of the Regulation of Gatherings Act. Yet it was brutally attacked and broken up by police — while the marchers were busy praying. Almost a dozen people were arrested, dozens injured.

Worse, hundreds of shack dwellers now feel that democratic protest action is not for them. When their organisation was finally allowed to hold a legal march and they had the assurance that it was legal, they were still not safe — this after a number of nasty experiences in trying to exercise their free-expression rights. In the past they have been prevented from leaving their shack settlements when leaving for protests. They have been shot at with rubber bullets and live ammunition. Their marches have been banned by the police with no reason. They have witnessed the abuse of the Constitution and the Regulation of Gatherings Act by local authorities determined to prevent them from protesting. They even had to launch an after-the-last-minute high court application to stop the police from preventing them from marching.

All this just so that they could be allowed to exercise a most basic democratic right — that to free expression. Yet, after all this, their recent experience can make anyone a cynic. Of course, the attempt was to suppress their action, deny them the right to express themselves, show them their place (as black people had to be shown “their place” during the days of apartheid, so too is there now a need to show poor people “their place”) and to intimidate them so seriously that they would not even try to protest again.

How many of these shack dwellers will wonder whether democracy is for them? Whether it is worth all the noise being made about it and the rights and freedoms it supposedly provides? How many of the rest of us will wonder the same? How many journalists realise that this attack is an attack against their freedom too?

Evidently, not too many journalists do realise this. That is why the attack against Abahlali received as little coverage as it did. That is why many protests these days are referred to in the media as “violent service-delivery protests”, as if that (whatever it means) is enough to prepare us to accept that the police will break it up and that’s just how things are.

I even remember seeing a report on e.tv a few weeks ago where the reporter referred to communities “using the option of violent protests”. As if they want to protest violently. Strangely, the video footage shown was of police opening fire on unarmed and peaceful protesters in Cape Town! How many journalists interrogate where the violence actually comes from in these “violent service-delivery protests”?

Freedom of expression means nothing if it is a right bestowed only on a privileged elite. If it is denied to poor people, it does not exist. And, if it is denied to poor people, then media people who think they are defending that right by simply insisting on their own right to publish are deluding themselves. Human rights only really exist when they are guaranteed for the “least among us”.

One Response to “Free expression means nothing if it’s limited to the media”

  1. Mymoena Arnold #

    Like I said … in a post elsewhere … on Media Freedom, ANC etc.

    While 13yrs is a very short time to guage success, enough has happened to cast some uncertainty, sow some seeds of doubt and create a deep sense of disillusionment and despondency.
    The impoverished are not concerned with intellectual debate on the issues that we are privy to engage in at leisure from the comforts of our armchairs, their needs are basic and dire, a matter of life and death.
    So if govt officials and MOps steal, lie, cheat, bribe, deceive, and are allowed to get away with it, how do you expect the ordinary citzen to react and respond?
    Some people do not have the luxury nor the time to deliberate, they need help NOW, and they remain where they are because of the greed and avarice of some of the very people they voted into power.

    In the realm of politics, the playing fields are never level, and its a doggy dog world.
    Those days during the anti-apartheid struggle, where an “Injury to one is an injury to all”, was a slogan shared and related to en masse, has been discarded in the pursuit of personal gain and accumulation.
    Explain to the displaced, disempowered and impoverished that better days are yet to come, when living has now turned into basic survival for them. Who do we hold to account for poor service delivery, declining healthcare and rampant crime? And really, who suffers the most … the poor.
    But let’s not go there cos bread and butter issues has nothing to do with anything really … yeah right. Superficial bubbles that we choose to live in because it is convenient and what we do not know and what does not affect us, will not bother us too much.
    What the politicians do in their private life sometimes contributes largely to the mess we wallow in today. It is time we confronted this reality.
    In short, do not take public office if you have something to hide.
    I feel that those who assume positions of responsibility, influence and power, should act accordingly too, and while I do not approve nor condone any illegal act where personal info is made public, those in these positions guilty of mismanagement, misappropriation etc, at some point have to be reined in and held accountable, like every other criminal that actually gets caught these days. The problem we sit with in this country at present is that even when things are done by the book, justice does not prevail. And hey these days the president himself gets to interfere with the natural course of the law.
    But every cent filling the pockets of these criminals in public office, delays human advancement, leaves behind a trail of social ills, deprives a newborn somewhere of a full and healthy life.
    To crown it all, those we ended up voting into power, to protect and afford our rights for all, in the hope of also improving the lot of the poor and previously disadvantaged, live large at the expense of the have nots.
    For me the question is not whether SA media is free or not free, for me the issue is whether there exists an environment or space where “alternatives” can be introduced, and considering the above, I think alot of the willing in this respect are held back and hindered by very real financial constraints. It is not only the govt one has to worry about in this regard, but the actual media entities that also currently exist, who have no interest in preserving and/or lobbying for “media freedom” as such, or anything that interferes with their pockets. We need a voice that will also champion the cause of the poor in this country and tell it like it is on the ground.
    It will be very interesting to see how all this plays itself out in the public domain and the kind of news that will be fed for public consumption.

    October 23, 2007 at 9:29 am

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