A Free Media is Essential for a Free Country
4 June 2015
Note to Editors: The following speech was delivered by the DA Leader, Mmusi Maimane MP, at the Annual Barry Streek Lecture hosted by the Cape Town Press Club.
Members of the Cape Town Press Club, distinguished guests,
It’s an honour to deliver the Barry Streek Memorial Lecture.
Being of a different generation, I never got to know Barry. But I know how much he meant to the newspaper community in South Africa.
And I also know what he stood for, both as a journalist and as a person.
He wrote at a time when our society was as oppressed as it has ever been. His very job – to present the facts, to tell the truth, to expose tyranny – was one of the main targets of this oppression.
To the apartheid government, a free press was one of the single biggest threats to their status quo. Keeping citizens uninformed and misinformed was key to their survival.
People like Barry Streek personified a free press. All the government’s threats, all the intimidation, all the strong-arm tactics would not deter him from doing his job as a journalist.
And ultimately, people like Barry Streek took on the apartheid government, and won.
A courageous press was pivotal to bringing the brutal apartheid regime to an end.
So when South Africa’s Constitution was drawn up 20 years ago, the authors of this document made sure it would specifically protect this liberty.
And it is now up to all of us to ensure that this remains intact. As leader of the official opposition, it is a task I will take very seriously.
Since taking over the reigns as DA leader, I have been on the road for three weeks on my Freedom, Fairness and Opportunity tour.
I made a commitment, during my acceptance speech at our Federal Congress, that I would visit communities in every single province before we launched our Vision 2029 document on the 13th of June.
At the time of making this promise, I don’t think I fully appreciated exactly what this would entail. It has been non-stop, and I have the air miles to prove it!
On this tour, my conversations with people across the country have been truly inspiring.
I’ve been talking to all these communities about the core values in our newly adopted Values Charter, which forms the preamble to the party’s Constitution.
These core values are Freedom, Fairness and Opportunity. And in the charter, we unpack what they mean to us, as a party, and what they mean, in real terms, to the people of South Africa.
They represent things that matter in the everyday lives of people, and it is around these values that we will unite people, and grow the DA to build a better future for all South Africans.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the first of these values: Freedom.
When we speak of freedom in South Africa, the first thing that comes to mind is liberation. Freedom from oppression.
We think of the struggle and how this resulted in the society we have today. A society which we call “free”.
We can all vote. We can all love and marry who we want to. We can live where we want, walk where we want and sit where we want.
But then you look at the circumstances of many people’s lives, and it becomes quite clear that they are not truly free.
Someone who hasn’t had a job in years, who can’t support a family, who is the product of a failed education system, who has no hope and very little dignity in life – is this person free?
It becomes clear that freedom is not a single-event victory. It’s not something for which we can pat ourselves on the back and then move on.
It is a continuous fight until you can truly say: we are all free from the chains of unemployment, the chains of poverty and the chains of inequality.
It has to be Freedom you can use, otherwise it’s just an empty word.
The other day I came across a quote by a man called Scott Howard Phillips. He was speaking about the concept of freedom, and he remarked that:
“You can't pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend.
You must defend all of it, or be against all of it.”
And this got me thinking about the freedoms we fought for in the past, and whether we’re still “struggling” for those same freedoms today.
Have we allowed certain freedoms to become threatened once more – perhaps not by any singular action, but rather through a slow creep of infractions?
Of course, the one that immediately springs to mind here is the freedom of the press in South Africa.
I don’t need to remind any of you here today about the attempts to suffocate and silence the media under Prime Ministers Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha.
Being a journalist or a newspaper editor back in the 60s, 70s and 80s in South Africa was a tough and often dangerous task.
Botha’s draconian measures to control the news through far-reaching censorship laws as part of his “Total Strategy” took government propaganda to a whole new level.
Before him, Vorster sought to control the news by effectively bankrolling and controlling a newspaper – a move so insidious that it would ultimately lead to his disgraced resignation.
Throughout this onslaught, the South African press remained unbowed and courageous. And when we celebrated our first steps as a democracy, the press was rightly lauded for the role it had played.
Now, fast-forward two decades. While our government doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind us of the freedoms they helped deliver – and particularly our free media – there is clear evidence that we have regressed on this front.
This time there is no big “Total Strategy”, but rather a multitude of small attacks that have left sections of our media compromised and open to influence.
When Vorster was found to have diverted state funds to The Citizen in the 1970s in order to establish a government-friendly English newspaper, it was the first political scandal big enough to lead to the demise of a head of state.
Today, we see a similar tactic being deployed by the ANC government, but for some reason the response to this has been largely muted.
Because it has been a slow creep – and perhaps because it has been drowned out in the noise of the many other government scandals – we have allowed large chunks of our media to fall into the hands of those who have every reason to push a particular agenda.
And here I refer specifically to the media ownership, because I know there are many hard-working, straight-talking journalists who work for these titles.
We have allowed our precious and hard-fought press freedom to slowly slip away again. And you need to list these threats to really get an idea of the scope.
The ANC-connected Sekunjalo’s take-over of the Independent Group is a threat to our press freedom.
The ANC-connected Gupta family’s ownership of The New Age newspaper and ANN7 TV news channel is a threat to our press freedom.
The deployment of ANC cadres to fill critical positions on the SABC Board is a threat to our press freedom.
The ANC government’s call for quotas of “Happy News” from broadcasters is a threat to our press freedom.
The ANC government’s call for “patriotism” instead of investigating large-scale corruption is a threat to our press freedom.
The ANC government’s Protection of State Information Bill is a threat to our press freedom.
The continued attack by police members on journalists and photographers is a threat to our press freedom.
The use of signal scramblers in parliament is a threat to our press freedom.
These are not disconnected events. There is a thread that runs through all of them, and that thread is the ANC government.
As it becomes increasingly threatened, it becomes increasingly paranoid.
And while the ANC can’t do much to ward off the blows in parliament, in various courts, in our Chapter 9 institutions and in an often-hostile social media, it can try to control the way all of this is reported in the mainstream media.
Our political ground is shifting. What seemed certain a few years ago, now seems highly unlikely. The ANC’s once-safe position as the overwhelming party of choice is coming under attack from all sides.
More than anything else, the continued growth of the DA has them worried.
Across provinces, metros and municipalities, the lines on the graphs are converging. It’s just a matter of time before they meet and cross.
How far the governing party will go to prevent this from happening is not yet clear. But judging by the way they are already trampling on our press freedom, it does not bode well.
It is our task to protect this freedom. And when I say “our”, I mean the people in this room.
We owe it to all who dedicated their lives to a free and impartial press back when a democratic South Africa was still a distant dream.
We owe it to the memory of people like Barry Streek.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”
And right now, with everything that’s going on, our country really needs to be safe.
I appeal to you, the members of the Fourth Estate, to help ensure this safety.
Issued by the DA, June 4 2015