Our press is neither free nor threatened - Jeremy Cronin

SACP DGS replies to Sowetan editor's critique of his party's stance on media freedom

Red Alert:The Red October campaign and what's really in the public interest?

Recently appointed Sowetan editor, Mpumelelo Mkabela, has been trying to impress his bosses by boosting sales with trashy tabloid stories. Most South Africans will remember how his career as editor got off to a salacious start with a front-page picture of a policeman and correctional service officer caught with their pants down while on duty. In an editor's note, which must rank up there in the Guinness Book of Records for hypocrisy, we were told that "ordinarily" the photo would not have been published, but this was "in the public interest".

Last week, Mpumelelo "Public-Interest" Mkabela tried (without success) to stir up more controversy ("Everyone needs unfettered media - alleged communists in SACP must get real", 28 September). Mkabela used the pretext of our imminent SACP Red October Campaign to launch a nasty but amateurish attack on the SACP (see here).

He doesn't, of course, bother to inform his readers (in the public interest) about the actual issues that we are taking up in our campaign this year. Instead, he describes the campaign as "an annual ideological pilgrimage during which they [SACP members] complain about capitalism without putting forward a solid alternative."

For the record (and in the public, or at least in the working class interest), our Red October campaigns have successfully advanced many solid alternatives, and many of these have been implemented or are in the pipeline of implementation. This includes our Red October campaign for a National Health Insurance to ensure a solidaristic approach to health-care in a country in which only 17% of South Africans have access to private, for-profit health-care - while the majority are forced to use under-resourced and over-crowded public facilities.

An earlier Red October campaign persuaded government to begin a re-think on the "willing-seller, willing-buyer" capitalist approach to land reform. In another Red October Campaign we focused on the financial sector - compelling legislated consumer protection, transparency around the operations of the Credit Bureaux, and we advanced the idea of the Postbank as a publicly owned banking facility reaching into remote rural areas.

This year we are focusing on building popular power in our communities to address the challenges in our schools; we are active in rural areas, helping to build a popular movement for land reform; and we are pursuing our anti-corruption campaign.

Of course Mkabela will claim that this anti-corruption campaign is just a "rhetorical" and empty moralizing matter - so (in the public interest) let's remind ourselves that here, too, we are putting forward a number of solid alternatives. Among these is the "de-tenderisation" of the state.

Increasingly, the state is relating to its popular mass base in our communities, not directly, not as protagonists to be mobilized in a common struggle, but via the device of the "tender". This is dividing and factionalising (rather than uniting) communities, and it is the source of a great deal of corrupt activity. This is why (another solid alternative) we are saying that where the state on its own can't do everything (for example build low cost housing, or maintain access roads) then, wherever possible, this work should be done jointly with community cooperatives, and through the expanded public works and community works programmes.

Everywhere, and not without many successes, we are spreading the message that another world is possible. It is possible through struggle to build a society based on solidarity, on social needs - and not on private profits for the few.

But Mkabela is not interested in any of this. He wants to centre the public debate somewhere else. And that somewhere else is precisely where every conservative, every anti-majoritarian pseudo-liberal cynic in our society wants public discourse to be focused. For the great majority of South Africans the serious issues are unemployment, grinding poverty, and the persistence of racialised inequality. But Mkabela and his bosses want to persuade us that the big challenge in South Africa is the "threat" posed by government and the ruling alliance to civil liberties in general and to media freedom in particular. What codswallop!

Mkabela wants us to believe that we have a "free" but threatened press. But there is nothing free about the high levels of oligopolistic domination that we have in the print media today. Newspapers in SA are dominated by three oligopolies - News24/Naspers suckled on apartheid-era tenders; the so-called Independent group, formerly dominated by white English-speaking mining and finance capital, and now owned by stingy Irish speculators who ship out hundreds of millions of rands from SA every year; and the Sowetan's owners - Avusa, finance and mining capital in bed with BEE and factional political interests.

When South African communists and our publications were banned and persecuted, none of the forerunners of today's print media giants in SA raised even a murmur of protest - indeed, some of them positively celebrated. But now we get pious (and sarcastic) homilies from their juvenile off-spring. Mkabela writes: "Many prominent communists experienced first-hand the pain of having their beloved literature banned when they were pursuing the noble struggle against apartheid. Why then is the SACP supportive of potentially repressive measures such as the Secrecy Bill and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal?"

To begin with, let's deal with that mealy mouthed first sentence. Mkabela presents us as having once long ago whimpered away because of censorship and the banning of "our beloved literature". Yes, our newspapers and journals were banned. Yes, Marxist literature was outlawed. We didn't wallow in self-pity, we went underground and continued to print, to publish and to distribute. Some of us got arrested. Some of our journalists, like Ahmed Timol, were tortured to death. Others took up where they had left off.

We weren't fighting narrowly against censorship, and we certainly weren't fighting so that big capitalist corporations and their salacious tabloids could dominate print media in our country. So why do we support the Protection of Information Bill (to give it its actual title), and why do we think a discussion around the desirability of a post-publication Media Appeals Tribunal is not a mortal sin?

We have never denied that the process around the Protection of Information Bill has often been clumsy. We have supported the many amendments made to it, as well as the current moratorium and review. What we have defended, and do defend, is the imperative of any sovereign democracy to protect sensitive personal information in the hands of the state (for example information held by SARS), and for the integrity of intelligence information.

We do this in the name of democracy and freedom. In the recent past our democracy has been threatened by the factionalising of our intelligence forces, based in part on the leaking to the media of security information (and especially disinformation).We need to protect legitimate whistle-blowing, and we need to be vigilant against the potential abuse of document classification. As for the debate around "a public interest" defence - my advice to Mkabela is that, given his own recent track-record in this regard, he should leave this particular argument to others.

What about a post-publication Media Appeal Tribunal, independent of both government AND media monopolies? We have already written extensively on this subject. Suffice to say that if it were not for the distraction of the ignominious NATO "victory" in Libya and the crisis in the Eurozone, the political debate in the UK following the Murdoch scandal would still be dominated by a very similar concern that led to the proposal of a Media Appeals Tribunal here.

But neither the Information Bill, nor the Media Appeals Tribunal is the big issue for us that Mkabela wants to make of them. He wants to have a grand battle on this terrain to please his masters. In his anxiety to provoke us into just such a debate, Mkabela ventured on a long and clumsy exposition on how the Communist Manifesto was once banned.

Let me remind Mkabela that the Communist Manifesto begins with a ringing statement: "A spectre is haunting Europe..." As we debate now in late 2011, a spectre is, indeed, haunting Europe. It is a spectre of financial turmoil and of sovereign debt crises, of mass youth unemployment and of French and German capitalist banking sectors determined to rescue themselves at the expense of the great majority of Europeans, and, indeed, of the world at large. Europe remains a major trading partner for South Africa. What are the consequences of this spectre for a million real Sowetans, for South African workers and broader popular forces? What is to be done? That is the discussion we should be having.


This article by SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin first appeared in the Party's newsletter, Umsebenzi Online.

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