Flawed democracvy & words as weapons

Posted on May 4, 2019


“I’m not a terrorist/I’m a freedom fighter.” So run the opening lines of a song sung in ANC camps in the exile years. They sum up an ongoing problem of communication; of the use and abuse of words in ways that can have very real consequences.

This problem tends to be created, and exacerbated, by propagandists, and promoted, perhaps unwittingly, by journalists while being used, often unthinkingly, by organisations across the board. It has the effect of dumbing down debate and reinforcing prejudices that should be challenged.

Distorted information, peppered with biased and emotional terminology, can play a significant role in genocidal horrors. Words become weapons. It was for this reason that the United Nations, in 1993, declared May 3 to be World Press Freedom Day, a decision vindicated again by the mass murders in Rwanda and Bosnia in 1994 and 1995.

Internet portal Daily Maverick, the SA National Editors’ Forum and Media Monitoring Africa commemorated the day on May 3) with a discussion forum before a packed audience in St George’s cathedral, Cape Town. It underlined clearly the threat to democracy of misinformation and fake news.

This accords with the statement of UN secretary general Antonio Gueterres wben he defined the day: “No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”

Since most African countries have a less than pristine image regarding freedom of expression, let alone of the media, it seems almost ironic that the major international conference event this year — in conjunction with the African Union — was staged in Ethiopia from May 1 to May 3. Almost ironic because Ethiopia, which last year had the greatest numbers of journalists under lock and key, has, under its new president, released all detainees.

However, Ethiopia, along with 29 other African states, still features in the bottom half of the international Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The theme of the Addis Ababa conference seems particularly pertinent to South Africa on the eve of the May 8 poll: “Media for democracy: journalism and elections in times of disinformation.”

But there was a worrying addendum: “Media’s role in supporting peace and reconciliation processes.” No mention of holding leaders accountable or of speaking truth to power at a time when leaders all too often decide what constitutes any peace and reconciliation process.

Elections in particular tend to be “times of disinformation” as politicians vie with one another – and frequently lie — in frantic efforts to win votes in what is claimed to be a democratic process. If by democracy we mean power to “the people” — to the electorate — then even South Africa is a flawed example.

This was recognised by the governing ANC at the time of the negotiations that led to the transition from apartheid. Proportional representation on a party list system was a compromise, agreed mainly to placate the White Right and their supporters.

At the time there was an understanding that this system, that could encourage patronage networks and which reduced the electorate to voting fodder in five-yearly cycles, should be changed. Change was supposed to happen by 2004 following the report in January 2003 of an Electoral Task Team established by cabinet in 2002. Nothing happened.

Today, it can be argued, we are still suffering the consequences of a system posing as democracy. Here is the rub: words have the power to create illusions of reality and can trigger emotional responses rather than encourage critical thought. The casual, uncritical, use of the term democracy is a classic example.

This was well illustrated last week by the coverage of the crisis in Venezuela. There seems puzzlement within the media generally that the South African government and the trade unions have not, in the name of democracy, joined in the call for regime change in that country.

The situation is complex and neither the unions nor government seem to have provided information to clarify the issue. In such situations, it is those media workers, journalists, who should come to the fore.

It could be explained, without bias, that the slump in oil prices, disastrous policies and grandiose schemes by former president Hugo Chavez contributed to a steady economic meltdown in Venezuela. But the economy was also strangled by sanctions aimed at regime change and applied by US president Barrack Obama. These were subsequently strengthened by Donald Trump,.

This in a country where the elected executive president and the cabinet he appoints serve for six years while the deputies in the national assembly serve for five. It was always a constitutional crisis waiting to happen especially given the multitude of political parties in Venezuela.

In May last year, most of the fragmented opposition parties, which together controlled the national assembly, boycotted the presidential election. But Maduro won with 68% of the vote against two opposition candidates and with a voter turnout of 46%.
In January this year Juan Guaidó, representing one of the smaller parliamentary parties, took his turn, in an agreed rotation among opposition parties, as president of the assembly. Without apparent prompting, US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo and vice-president Mike Pence assured him of US backing if he declared himself president of the country.

He promptly did so, with the US and much of the media referring to a struggle for democracy against Maduro’s “illegitimate” government. This was an attempt at a parliamentary — and unconstitutional — coup and the crisis escalated.

Over the years there have been other attempts — a number of them successful — at engineering regime change, all of them accompanied by media carrying distorted facts or even downright fake news. A classic example was the toppling in 1973 by the military of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile.

But similar distortions of fact, promoting political agendas either domestically or internationally, may simply be geared at obscuring blatant thievery and corruption. South Africa, courtesy of a quite free and alert media, has become aware of a slew of these.

As was spelled out in Cape Town on May 3, an alert, honest media is an essential part of the bulwark against such assaults on the limited democracy that now exists. It should also, by informing and educating the public at large, encourage the extension of democratic control.

The labour movement, historically — and very recently in South Africa — has been to the forefront of the fight for democracy. Worryingly in Cape Town on May 3, it was nowhere in sight.

Posted in: Commentary