THE LATEST report from Reporters without Borders (RSF) provides encouraging reading for South Africans. Of 180 countries surveyed, we come in at 35; a tribute to the work of journalists and robust constitutional protection. But consider the countries with which our government likes to align itself in BRICS: Brazil and India have very poor records, and Russia and China are red flagged. None of them is listed in the top 100. Another ally, Cuba, has zero press freedom and the worst record in Latin America.

The last vestiges of independent media have now been suppressed within Russia, although they flourish in nearby exile. The editor-in-chief of Russia Today said in a broadcast thatno great nation can exist without control over information.’ Indeed, throughout modern history authoritarian regimes have weaponised news. At the same time the Fox News model is a privatised version of the same tendency to favour propaganda. Truth is increasingly at a premium.

RSF notes that ‘South Africa guarantees press freedom and has a well-established culture of investigative journalism.’ But, ‘In recent years, journalists have often been subjected to verbal attacks from political leaders and activists.’ It is this latter pressure that should ring alarm bells and is almost certain to move South Africa down the rankings in future. The threats are largely informal: however much the ANC may admire its totalitarian comrade nations, any attempt to emulate their media control laws and methods would swiftly be invalidated by our courts.

Anyone out with a camera last year during the failed insurrection of July will remember how a lens could evoke extreme reactions, usually from people who knew they were breaking the law and did not want this recorded. The street thugs of the Economic Freedom Fighters and now the even more toxic and xenophobic Dudula and other fascist groups such as the RET faction of the ANC are openly hostile to the press. Their aim is to shut down all aspects of liberal democracy and they are well aware that a free press is a crucial part of its preservation.

It is by now well-known that social media, held up not long ago as a foundation stone of freedom, is a purveyor of misinformation, disinformation, hate speech and authoritarian ideology. When it comes to opposing these socio-political cancers, Twitter and other short-form media are not much help because the counter arguments are subtle and complex. By definition the values worth defending in society do not lend themselves to sloganeering, simplistic explanations and abbreviated abuse.

In spite of the demise of print media, press freedom is still best promoted in the mainstream. And in recent years South Africa’s has notched up a good record in relation to the country’s endemic culture of ANC-generated corruption. Its investigative teams, notably Daily Maverick and amaBhungane, exposed the depth and breadth of graft and racketeering that led to the setting up of the Zondo Commission into State Capture. In other words, the press lived up to those well-worn cliches about being the first draft of history and a foundation stone in the defence of democracy.

But we should not be complacent. The work of the press in relation to democracy only goes so far and ultimately requires political action. In this particular case, its efforts and those of Zondo will have deeper and lasting meaning only if culprits are punished and ill-gotten gains retrieved and returned to where they belong (a somewhat quixotic hope). Zondo’s report names 130 people worthy of prosecution, but there is serious doubt whether the National Prosecuting Authority has the financial resources, expertise and will to pursue his recommendations.

The evidence has been assembled in draft and awaits the construction of prosecutable cases, but the implications are vast and involve the dismantling and locking up of much of the post-apartheid political order. This does not fit with the scenarios sacred to liberation movements, which, as Jacob Zuma memorably put it, ‘rule until Jesus comes’. They see themselves in quasi-religious terms as sacred appendages of the nation.

This does not in any way detract from the sterling work of the press or the need to protect it from populism and thuggery. But it does emphasise that its value is dependent on other arms of state and society doing their work thoroughly and without fear. Is this possible in a country run on political patronage? Experience suggests not; in which case the press will indeed have written the first draft but ultimately failed to defend democracy.

  • First published in the Witness, 1 June 2022