Defending media freedom and resisting authoritarian regimes

By Imraan Buccus 

Global outrage about the murder of exiled Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi is mounting. It throws a bright light on the precarious existence of intellectuals, artists and dissidents in the Arab world broadly covering North Africa and the Middle East.

The repression there finds parallels with the worst of the European fascists, Stalinism in the then USSR and communist Eastern Europe, Pol Pot’s  Cambodia, the Burmese military in the notorious Insein Prison – and more recently against the Rohingya minority, and of course the dirty work of apartheid’s notorious Security Branch. 

The excuse of dying in a fist fight in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul sounds very much like slipping on a bar of soap in John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. The more incredulous the attempts at explanation, the deeper repressive regimes dig themselves into a hole. 

Hostility against journalists in democratic South Africa is on an uncomfortable incline. That is not a recent feature. When Thabo Mbeki was at the helm, he and his posse of belligerent lieutenants frequently took the battle to journalists. They could not match the jocular contest between the then recently freed Nelson Mandela and American television journalist Ted Koppel. 
In that instance Mandela succeeded in freezing Koppel into a defeated smile as he politely threw the kitchen sink at him. 

In the disastrous Jacob Zuma decade, the media were frequently a target from podiums and they were even hauled to  the courts. In news currently unfolding certain journalists allowed themselves to be fed certain narratives that have emerged as unfounded. That will be an enduring blot of the stellar record of South African journalism. 

The hostility from some quarters today comes from those politicians and their beneficiaries fingered in the VBS, Limpopo and Tshwane financial scandals among others. All told however, our country’s constitutional guarantees in the Bill of Rights and the robust defence of press freedom by both the current administration and civil society point to the fundamentals of free expression being firmly in place. 

This should not be interpreted as the media having licence to do as it pleases. Quite the contrary. The more sensible  understanding is that as citizens we must relish the value of a free press. The corresponding obligation from the media of course is that in a democracy rights come with responsibilities. These very pages have sometimes failed that test. 

In unpacking the ramifications of the Khashoggi murder one is reminded that under the apartheid regime 41 years ago this month, the regime-critical newspaper The World was banned and anti-apartheid journalists like the legendary Percy Qoboza and Aggrey Klaaste faced the full might of repression including arbitrary detention. 

Another disconcerting parallel is that Khashoggi was lured back into the Saudi consulate on the United Nations declared International Day of Non-Violence that marks the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary on 2 October. 

My personal compulsion to add my voice to the horror of the Khashoggi murder  is the disappointment I felt standing in Tahrir Square as the teeth was being pulled out of the Arab Spring. That feeling might have  had a parallel with Soviet tanks rolling into Prague as the Czechs decades earlier rallied in a brief spring of their own. 

As one of the most dominant political players in the region, the Saudis actively betrayed the Arab Spring. It confirmed the belief that the very  centre of global Islam is being run by a decrepit tribal clique concerned with its own survival and wealth accumulation. 

The Saudis are guardians of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Many Muslims leaders in South Africa and around the world kowtow to the House of Saud fearing that any criticism might compromise them in various ways.That must stop. 

The brutal murder of Khashoggi must be condemned as the most unIslamic deed. The Saudis must be held accountable in all the councils of the world and indeed all the mosques of the world. 

In his last column in The Washington Post, Khashoggi wrote prophetically, “Arabs… are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect … their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche… a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.” Those cutting words demonstrate the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. It is however the brutality of the sword that cut down Khashoggi. 

One hopes that his death is not in vain and that it might spark a resurgence of activism for democracy in the Arab world currently plagued variously by civil war, internal strife, religious extremism of which ISIS is the prime example and daily repression of intellectuals. 

It is a blessing on our constitution that kleptocratic politicians making our headlines today are expressly denied the powers their Arab counterparts exercise with impunity. The Washington Post ran a blank block on the page Khashoggi normally wrote. It was a poignant tribute to courage. It will take greater courage to defend democratic freedoms and contest authoritarian regimes wherever in the world we are.

Buccus is academic director of a UKZN study abroad program and editor of Al Qalam 


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