2018 — and the hope to fly above the mire

Posted on January 13, 2018


It’s a new year and, if South Africa to see any real hope for a better future, the country probably needs to see the beginnings of at least some radical transformation of our present economic, political and social environment. And that will require sound information and cogent analysis to enable all citizens to play a responsible part.

This, in the first place, requires a media as free as possible of coercion and manipulation; a media that can be relied upon to provide sound, honest information. It should also be an environment in which whistleblowing on corruption or any malfeasance is wholly protected.

Never, in our globalised world, have these requirements seemed so important and yet so much under threat. There is the twittering lunacy of Donald Trump who, very worryingly, has a nuclear arsenal at his disposal, facing the infantile bellicosity of a now nuclear armed Kim Jung Un. The multiple refugee crises are also continuing, accompanied by reports of barbarism, inhumanity and savagery, with details of everything from slave markets to torture, aerial bombardment and “ethnic cleansing”, that common euphemism for genocide.

On the domestic front history also seems likely to repeat itself along all too familiar lines: rhetoric about renewal peppered with promises of turnarounds, improvements and better lives for all providing a flimsy veil for what seems likely to be, at best, more of the same, but perhaps a bit worse. Not the least of this may be another raid on the pockets, particularly of the poor, through a probable hike in value added tax (VAT).

One reason that such a move is almost certain to become necessary is the apparently off-the-cuff promise by President Jacob Zuma of freedom from fees for most tertiary students. As a result, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ “student command” seized the opportunity to cause possible chaos next week at universities around the country by telling all qualifying matriculants to turn up at any university of their choice and to demand to be registered.

This at a time when the governing ANC remains in a general state of turmoil behind a wall of words proclaiming unity; a stonewall clearly in evidence at the January 8 106th birthday rally in East London. Meanwhile, the tensions, fragmentation and financial problems within the trade union movement also show no signs of abating.

That we are aware of such facts and analysis and are able to debate them is because South Africa still enjoy — for all the faults and manipulation that exists — a relatively honest and free media. And the fact that we have available such news and analysis is the work of media workers, of journalists, who act as the eyes and ears of the pubic at large.

In this, South Africans are fortunate, although attacks on journalists and on whistleblowers are increasing. But the counry a long way from the situation in countries such as Turkey, Mexico, China, Syria and Ukraine. As the new year began, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) confirmed that 2017 was “the worst year on record for jailed journalists”.

Exactly how many journalists were detained “in connection with the provision of news and information” and how many have been murdered for that reason, is difficult to assess accurately. CPJ was able to trace and confirm that 262 journalists were in prison at the end of last year. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) lists 326, although this number includes 107 “citizen journalists”, individuals using social media and blogs usually in situations where other avenues are closed.

Both organisations ascertained that 17 journalists were murdered because of the work they were doing. But there are also a number of journalists missing or held hostage by armed groups.

And it is not only in authoritarian states that journalism is under threat. As RSF states in its end of year message: “Media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile in democracies as well. Democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators.”

But the protection of democratic rights that exist, let alone their possible extension, requires more than sound information and analysis; it needs organisation. And it is here that the trade unions have a potentially vital role to play, but only if they are independent, democratic in their organisation, truly accountable to their members and transparent in everything they do.

Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. Yet, without the democratically organised power of workers, democratic norms — and the right to know — can rapidly be smothered.

However, within the labour movement, there often exists considerable animosity toward journalists and — sometimes with justification — the media in general. This is usually promoted by union leaders or factions within the movement with something to hide or agendas to push. Propagandists posing as journalists and the deliberate distortion of facts at editorial level also encourage this animosity.

It is here that workers, inside and outside the media, have crucial roles to play in helping to expose — and agitate against — purveyors of fake news and editorial distortion. Open and transparent debate should be the aim.

My hope for 2018 is that something along these lines will start to emerge in coming months; that we will not see the reinvention yet again of another old wheel when the opportunity and ability exists to fly above the mire into which we seem to be sinking.