Press freedom is most important to the poor

By Imraan Buccus

While we have much to complain about in SA, we tend not to celebrate enough the fact that the central pivots of our democracy, the media and civil society remain strong. It is true that parts of our media have been captured; but a great deal of our media remains uncaptured and contributes immensely to our robust democracy.
So, when journalists are intimidated and spied on or when securocrats threaten to roll back freedom of expression in South Africa; we do need to worry.

Some like to present press freedom and other corner stones of democracy as ‘liberal’ and a result of the ‘compromise in 1994’. It is true that liberal democracy is a limited form of democracy. But we need to respond to this by deepening democracy into a more radical form and not by turning towards a more authoritarian system.
The great Indian economist, Amartya Sen, offers us a vitally important lesson about press freedom that we all need to think about. Sen changed the way that we understand famines –and was able to draw a fascinating link between press freedom and famine.

For him the topic of famine was not one of mere academic interest. As a nine-year-old boy he lived through the Bengal famine of 1943 and was deeply shaped by the appalling suffering that he had witnessed. As an adult his research on famine threw up an intriguing result. Sen found that in no country was famine the result of a shortage of food. In each of the famines that he studied he found that the real problem was the distribution of food. He also found that in each case the problems with the distribution of food were a result of another problem – a lack of press freedom.

In fact Sen found that there has never been a famine in the recent times in any country that has press freedom. The reason for this is simple. A free press will always report things like food shortages, resulting in pressures on governments to take effective action to resolve the situation.

In the light of Sen’s research the attack on press freedom is not just an attack on human rights. On the contrary it is also an attack on the material interests of the working class and the poor. If tenderpreneurs and their theft and shoddy work are not exposed in the media, the plunder of the public purse will continue unabated. And without press freedom, corruption will remain the greatest threat to our nation.

Threats to journalists and press freedom are not bad only because it will undermine our international standing. This is a neo-colonial argument and will, quite rightly, be labeled and dismissed as such.
We shouldn’t reject the attack on press freedom because the west won’t like it or because human rights organizations in England or France won’t like it. We should reject it because it is an attack on our basic freedoms and one that will damage the interests of the marginalized and vulnerable the most.

If this battle on press freedom is to be won it will be won outside of the domain of the political elite. The media itself has an important role to play. It must refuse to be intimidated and it must really challenge itself to look beyond the interests of elites and to try and represent the poor more fairly.

When journalists are intimidated, often civil society will raise its voice but very often civil society is funded by foreign governments, it is often white led and it will, inevitably, be attacked as a foreign conspiracy. The only constituency that really has the credibility to take this attack on media freedom head-on is the popular organizations made up of ordinary people – the trade unions, the religious groups and the community organizations and social movements.

It is a great pity that the leading civil society campaigners for press freedom have not won the full confidence of the major progressive organizations and movements of the poor. They have tended to focus their alliance building on middle class, and often white led NGOs, instead of working to build alliances with popular organizations. This has been a major strategic error that could well come back to haunt the campaign for press freedom in years to come.
If the people campaigning for journalists and press freedom want to win their battle, and to do it in a way that creates a secure consensus for the future, they need to ensure that their fundamental orientation is to popular organizations and movements and not middle class and often white dominated NGOs.

Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor, Research Fellow in the School of Sciences at UKZN and the academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside.

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