Several weeks have passed since our reporter was arrested, held without access to his lawyer for eight hours, awoken for interrogation at 2.30 AM and finally released on the orders of the High Court. Not one single person in the government has expressed regret at how this incident was handled. There has been not one whisper of sympathy from those who are in a position to take a stand on this matter. I find that sad.
It suggests to me that there is consensus in the ruling party and amongst those in leadership elsewhere in society that this sort of treatment of a journalist is acceptable.
But what makes me feel a terrible emptiness is the continuation of the legislative and administrative onslaught on the press by way of the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal because this is being done despite an incredible public outcry.
Opposition to these measures has come from every single newspaper editor in the country, from the World Editors Forum and the World Association of Newspapers – bodies which speaks on behalf of editors from the South China Morning Post to the New York Times – from the country’s leading authors, from diplomats including the US Ambassador to South Africa, from vice chancellors of universities, from the General Council of the Bar, which questions their constitutionality, from opposition political parties, from the business organisation representing our top 50 corporations and from countless others in civil society.
Yet there is a steadfast determination to proceed with these measures.
This suggests that there is a dangerous hubris taking hold within the ruling party. It believes that it alone is the arbiter of what is right or wrong in public policy. That the intellectuals and the editors are opposed to the measure merely feeds this feeling of standing alone for a righteous cause.
We are told that “the people” want this change and the intellectuals are resisting it. Apparently out there people are angry at the fact that corrections are published on page four instead of page three of the newspapers. Apparently the people are angry that documents are being leaked. We are supposed to believe that day and night they are begging the ruling party to take action and that this is now a national political priority.
In fact, nothing of the sort is taking place. There is no grassroots anger at the media, unless you include that which occurs when populist leaders call for it at meetings.
All of this is sophistry of the worst kind.
What is being manufactured in the mind of the public is a popular uprising against intellectuals. What is being concealed is an attack by a wealth-accumulating elite on those who questions their bona fides as champions of the poor.
It is deeply worrying. It is sad and it leaves me feeling empty.
THERE is no other way to characterise this week’s arrest of Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika as anything other than a blatant attempt to intimidate him and this newspaper.
There are several aspects to this arrest which remain disturbing.
The first is that it involved eight or more policemen, their police sirens blazing at our premises in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Fewer policemen have been called on to arrest of violent thugs.
The second is that police refused, until many hours had passed, to allow him access to his legal representative or to inform his lawyer of where he was being held.
The third is the fact that even when three prosectors in Mpumalanga declined to take the case forward because of the flimsiness of the docket, the police refused to release him.
The fourth is that the state argued before a High Court in Pretoria that he should remain in jail because it was only “a few hours” until he was due to appear in court. That representatives of a democratic government could conjure up such a defence was very disappointing.
The fifth was that, despite their many efforts to keep our reporter in jail, the state did not oppose bail the following morning.
The above five concerns are serious enough but they are compounded by acts of omission.
The silence on this flagrant abuse of power from Pretoria was deafening, suggesting that this sort of thuggish behaviour enjoys the support of those at the highest level of government.
This was compounded by the silence of civil society with the notable exception of media institutions who rallied strongly behind the need for proper legal processes to be followed.
It is the fashion amongst the political classes to look at social networks such as twitter and facebook as little more than titillation.
But the good citizens who use these networks showed far more spine and ethical clarity than those you would expect to rise to the defence of freedom.
A notable exception to this was the leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, who produced a cogent and principled critique of the state’s plans to erode media freedom.
Who could have imagined that even as Zille rose to defend freedom the likes of Jeremy Cronin would pen apologies for its reduction?
Who would have imagined that lawyers would be at the Pretoria High Court at night seeking an urgent interdict to have a journalist released while lawyers acting for the democratic state sought to keep him in jail?
The time has come for all who value this freedom to speak out against those who value power.
A member of the Sunday Times staff, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, was arrested this morning. We have assigned lawyers to represent him and we are trying to establish what the charges against him are and where he is being held, so far without any success.
Our lawyers have been unable to get a clear answer from the police on either of these two questions.
I am deeply concerned at the fact that a journalist can be arrested and held at an undisclosed location in a country where the rule of law ought to apply.
He was arrested by a large number of policemen in an operation which was clearly designed to intimidate and I can only conclude that this was the true motive for what took place today.
Mzilikazi was one of the authors of the story which we published on Sunday about the rental of new police headquarters at the cost of R500m without following the usual tender proceedings. I hope, for the sake of our country, that he was not arrested on spurious charges in order to punish him for what he wrote.
We are doing everything in our power to have him released and we are doing all that we can to assure his well being.
Thought you might be interested in this glorious piece of patriotic writing by the North Korean news agency. (Yes, they have a twitter feed!) And remember it all starts with public vilification of independent media and calls for tribunals.
Read and enjoy:
Leader’s Forced March Full of Patriotic Devotion
Pyongyang, June 2 (KCNA) – The leader of the DPRK continues forced march full of patriotic devotion not for his personal comfort and the happiness of his family but for the prosperity of the motherland and all blessings of the people. Read More…
Following on my earlier post, The five biggest mistakes of the new South Africa, here is my promised look at the up side of post-apartheid South Africa.
1. THE ELIMINATION OF INSTITUTIONALISED DISCRIMINATION
The formal end of apartheid in 1994 was a symbolic act. Over the next ten years, the new government had to work very hard to undo the legislative scrambled egg to place all citizens on an equal footing, enjoying the same basic rights. Masses of legislation made their way through parliament under Nelson Mandela, opening up education to all, allowing access to health facilities and removing obstacles to movement and involvement in the economy. This was a huge accomplishment which, accompanied by a massive campaign around reconciliation, was without the rancour – except for among a small portion of the beneficiaries of apartheid – that such transformation could have attracted. The lives of millions of South Africans were instantly touched by this legislative programme which ensured the legitimacy of the new state with the majority of the people. Read More…
SOUTH Africa has a free media. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We are pretty much free to publish what we want within the constraints of the law, of course. So you can’t defame someone without a proper reason for doing so and you can’t wantonly publish untruths. But, by and large, you can write and publish pretty much what you like. It’s one of the many things that we got right after decades of censorship under apartheid.
But the new mandarins are starting to close in on the press. They are shutting down the Scorpions, the lead agency fighting corruption. And now they want to get rid of the press reports about corruption. (Read here about how a new law will make it illegal to possess “classified” documents)
Such reports are vital to the functioning of democracy. They bring scrutiny to bear on public institutions, something which ought to delight public spirited citizens. A free and fearless press is not a nice-to-have, it is something without which democratic societies cannot function.
So why is there an effort to close down the public space?
You could reach the rather crude conclusion that they are creating a climate for all-out looting. Its one thing to rig a few tenders, take a back-hander from an arms deal, or graft some bucks out of the money allocated for peanut-butter sandwiches for kids. But this is peanuts compared to the grand prize of organised crime: the state. Looting the state leads to real, massive dividends, just ask the pirates who looted the Congo to nothing over a few decades.
Maybe that’s a little too simplistic. Yes, there are those who pray for a society free of checks and balances so they can feast at the trough uninterrupted. The real reason is that …. er …. er …. actually, I can’t come up with anything else.
TODAY the world will witness one of the most brutal and shameful parodies of democracy to ever be enacted by a government when the Zimbabwean presidential run-off election gets underway.
There is only one candidate in the election — Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe — following the withdrawal of his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, who won more votes than Mugabe in the first round.
He was left with little choice but to remove himself from the poll following one of the most brazen and brutal assaults on democracy ever launched.
Mugabe mobilised militia to beat, torture and harass those suspected of voting for Tsvangirai.
He repeatedly arrested Tsvangirai — on five occasions at last count — forcing him to take refuge in a foreign embassy.
He arrested Tsvangirai’s right-hand man, Tendai Biti on trumped up charges and continue to hold him in prison to this day.
Hundreds of refugees from the vicious assaults committed by Mugabe on Tsvangirai’s supporters have been arrested and “taken to places of safety” by Mugabe’s thugs.
Local and international monitors have been barred or given limited access to the poll and the media have all-but been banned from covering the event from within Zimbabwe.
Mugabe’s assault on democracy finally earned the wrath of his fellow African statesmen this week and the ANC broke years of apologist rhetoric to publicly rebuke him for his behaviour.
But today Mugabe will go ahead with his sham election. Some will willingly go to the polls to support him. Some will be frog-marched to cast their vote. Most will attempt to stay away from voting.
The outcome of this election will ring hollow throughout the world. But Mugabe will celebrate his re-election and press ahead with the wanton destruction of his country.
He must be stopped.
SOUTH Africa has its share of social ills and I won’t bore you by listing them. You know what they are. But we are a free nation that today celebrates fourteen years since all citizens were counted as equal at the ballot box for the first time. There can be no question that the act of casting a ballot when yours counts as much as a beggar’s a CEO’s or a government minister’s is the bedrock of democracy.
From the casting of this ballot arise governments, presidents, policies and the leadership of the country. When they go wrong, this can be remedied at the ballot box, provided a sufficient number believe this to be the case.
We must never disrespect this fundamental wish of the people. It is not appropriate to state that this country is “not a democracy”, or that President Thabo Mbeki is a dictator as many do out there on the lunatic fringes proclaim. If your view does not carry the majority with it, you should accept this and refrain from questioning the validity of our democratic system.
By all means question policies, question the actions of our leaders, be critical of government. But, if you believe in democracy, you should never go further and question the democratic foundation on which our society rests.
For all the sabre ratling, attempts to buy out critical newspapers, misdirected efforts to shut down newspapers by restricting government advertising, we remain a free press. We are restricted only by bad taste (racism and the like) and our own consciences.
Defence of this freedom should never be misconstrued as an effort to overthrow the democratic order.