Leonard Gentle

It is going to take new and expanded forms of plurality in all media forms including contesting public broadcasters so that they genuinely are not just platforms of the state  and campaigns to have public control over the Big Tech, to give substance to media freedom today


At the beginning of 2021 a British court will deliver verdict on whether a journalist and publisher of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, can be extradicted to the USA, there to face a life sentence for publishing records of the US state’s murder and abuse of human rights. Whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, has been granted permanent asylum from US pursuit in Russia – a country not known for its respect of press freedom. All the while the world’s mainstream media – print, broadcast and visual – are largely silent about these matters as they are about imperial coups in Latin America and the wars in the Middle East and Africa.

When they do report on the infringements to press freedom it is to single out African countries – the suppression of journalists in Tanzania and Zimbabwe being cases in point.

And South Africa’s media merely parrots this slant. Even though there is a South African angle to the Assange case – his partner is a South African lawyer.

And yet in May 2021 we will be celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press.  The Windhoek Declaration is a statement of press freedom principles by African newspaper journalists. The Declaration was produced at a UNESCO seminar, “Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press,” held in Windhoek, Namibia, in May 1991.

Covid 19 as a cover for unpopular reforms 

As we come to the end of 2020 we still do not know how long the spectre of the Covid 19 pandemic will hang over the world. We know from the health sciences that the novel coronavirus will wreck its havoc on human health until human beings develop a durable herd immunity or that we have a vaccine which is effective, durable and safe (and, of course, available to all).

In the meantime, there is a second surge of Covid 19 in the North – across Europe, America and Russia – sparking new rounds of lock-downs.

The race for a vaccine is muddied by vested corporate interests for whom patenting a vaccine is an opportunity for immense profits, and by governments who see the world through geo-political rivalry and often act on behalf of these interests. Both Russia and China have registered vaccines but despite South Africa being co-members of BRICS with these countries it is unthinkable for us to join clinical trials with them and break with Western scepticism.

When the Covid 19 pandemic hit South Africa and the government imposed the Lock Downs there was, for a while, some commentary, even optimism that it was an opportunity to re-boot and prepare for a post-Covid world. That the healthcare system would be improved and the long-promised National Health Insurance (NHI) implemented.

Instead, under the cover of its moral currency earned by acting “decisively” to save the country, including applying for a bail-out from the IMF, the state is now moving to implement the most far-reaching neo-liberal reforms since the early days of the GEAR strategy – drastically cutting state spending and privatising infrastructure development by have Big Business profiteer through investment in the SOEs. Rather than the earlier phase of full privatisation by sell-offs this means that Eskom, SAA, Transnet etc. while retain nominal state ownership, will become little more than state shell companies inside of which private companies profiteer.

But local infrastructure – water supplies, sewerage, transport, cleaning – and public healthcare and education, are not part of his plan, while the wages of nurses, home-based carers, teachers and cleaners are cut and SASSA grants inadequate.

Amidst all this stories are trickling through of widespread starvation and homelessness across the country as people resort to piece work, moving to rural areas, seizing land, waste-picking and food gardens to survive.

There is no sense in government that a second wave of Covid 19 is possible or any planning for the 2021 Winter is needed. New Lock Downs are simply not contemplated.

Instead much of media commentary is about the optimism of government’s promised infrastructure tempered with ongoing sniping at why Ramaphosa is not dealing decisively with corruption. Economic plans are always treated with respect and “necessary” economic “reforms” treated as gospel.

Ideology and the media

Then, in September 2020 the most damning indictment of the absurdity of how economic indicators are constructed was revealed. StatsSA in its Quarterly Report for the second quarter of 2020 revealed that unemployment in South Africa fell from 30.1% to 25.3% !!! In the midst of the level 5 lockdown occasioned by Covid 19 unemployment DROPPED !

This is obviously not true if we think intuitively, of unemployment as the percentage of people of appropriate age without work. But unemployment has long been re-defined –since the 1990s – to mean the number of people who seek unemployment benefits by going to the Department of Labour and registering within 2 weeks of losing a job. If they do not do so they are classified as “discouraged” workers. With Covid 19 and the Lock downs fewer people went to the DoL . So ! (QED) unemployment dropped.

Economic information has quite a few of such gems.  For instance, up to the 1970s finance was not included in the calculation of GDP as only goods and services from real outputs were measured. Then as investment globally moved into stocks and bonds and out of fixed investment finance expanded even though GDP declined. But economists redefined GDP to include finance and so Hey Presto ! there was once again GDP growth.  This just shows the ideological nature of economics and financial journalists are embedded in the circuits of stock-brokers, fund managers and investment advisors.

What we know is always mediated by what powerful forces in the world allow us to know and how information comes to us through the prism of selection and ideology which seeks to make the inequalities in the world appear natural and immutable.

This is also true of social media.

The fact that social media has become the dominant way that people now source news has had some commentators claiming that information would be more accessible and immediate. But the reality has proven different. While some people can become instant photo-journalists using their cell phones and many activists organise via social media, people, in the main, share news in networks which replicate mainstream media prejudices or draw on dark sites.

This has seen Facebook, Twitter and other Big Tech Monopolies become the self-appointed guardians of news – censoring what they claim is fake news. This is a case of making the poacher the gamekeeper!

Which brings us back to the Windhoek Declaration …        

The date of the Declaration’s adoption, May 3, has subsequently been declared as World Press Freedom Day.

African journalists made a strategic intervention into a West-East conflict. What was the balance of forces in the world in 1990/1991?

South Africa was still under the apartheid regime of the Nationalist Party. But the regime had unbanned the ANC, SACP and the PAC, released Mandela and embarked on negotiations.

Globally, the biggest shift had been the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as the Soviet Union began to implode alongside its allies in the Eastern Europe. With the end of the Cold War looming the imperialist countries of the West launched what they called the “decade of Democracy”. The USA and Britain shifted towards embracing democracy in countries where they formerly bolstered repressive regimes under the justification that these were “anti-Communist”. Landmark shifts towards negotiated democracies happened in Latin America (notably Chile, Argentina and Brazil – where the US had formerly backed Pinochet and the Military regimes) and Africa (in the Congo, Nigeria, Angola and Namibia – where the US had formerly backed Mobutu, the military and South African occupation and its local surrogates respectively). And even Israel shifted to talk to the PLO in what became known as the Oslo Accords.

In this context forums in the UN – like UNESCO, the WHO etc. –  began to see an unheard-of consensus about democracy.

For African journalists this consensus provided an opportunity to use international pressure to pressurise African governments who had suppressed journalists and/or plurality of media outlets, to hasten democracy in Namibia and South Africa (who was also the colonial power over Namibia and the source of destabilisation throughout Southern Africa) and to hardwire a sense of press freedom into a future democratic South Africa.

They seized that opportunity and the rest, as they say, is history.

But this apparent consensus about the virtues of democracy being an unreservedly “good thing” hid the fact that the sources for and the vision of democracy were different. This was none more marked than in Southern Africa.

In 1991 the West saw democracy as both an objective to replace Soviet “communism” and as a means to open the Eastern bloc, and other regions deemed to be too statist, to capitalist investment.  Here, in Southern Africa, the sources for democracy – in the ex-Portuguese colony of Angola, in Zimbabwe, in Namibia and South Africa – lay in the struggles for national liberation and majority rule, and not, as in Zambia, in a belated Western push for democracy.

And here vision and the underlying assumptions about the content of democracy were also different, particularly about the state. Whereas the Western imperialist conception was one in which the state needed to be rolled back and give way to “the market” and, later, what the World Bank called “civil society” the national liberation movements wanted democracy as an expansion of the state to ensure development and greater equality.

While both these currents are rooted in the classical liberalism of the European enlightenment of the 18th century their implications for press freedom in the late 20th and early 21st centuries were very different.  The former emphasised press freedom purely as freedom from state interference, repression and control. The latter wanted more plurality of media so that a range of voices and opinions could be in the public domain and not just state and private business voices.

As is the case with all such UN projects the final declaration was a fudge including both currents.

But with the triumph of neo-liberalism globally it is press freedom from governments and states that has come to be the rallying call that shapes perceptions today. Which is why – even within this perception – the silence in the media on the Assange case can only be seen as a case of racism. We are rallied to support journalists who are victimised and hounded by African (and other regimes in the global South) governments but not in the case of victims in the belly of the Western beast.

The relevance today

But today, 30 years later, when we re-look at the Windhoek Declaration we need to look beyond the different shades of the state vs freedom and state-enabling dichotomy and see that the crisis in information and opinion is a much deeper one. We live at a time of almost 40 years of neo-liberalism in which a small super-elite speaks in an echo-chamber to established media voices who are drawn from networks close to that elite. The vast majority of people in the world are outside this bubble.

This does not mean that raising the flag of protest whenever journalists are victimised by regimes wherever in the world is not important. With the rise of authoritarianism all over the world this will only get more important

But it is going to take new and expanded forms of plurality – of communities, social movements, trade unions, youth groups etc.  – in all media forms – including contesting public broadcasters so that they genuinely are not just platforms of the state – and campaigns to have public control over the Big Tech, to give substance to media freedom today.