What better way to honour an African media freedom giant than to launch an online course on media freedom and freedom of expression in Africa? This is precisely what has happened to honour the memory of Jeanette Minnie, who passed away in 2016 after an illness. The course, called ‘Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in Africa’, is being offered by the Link Centre and WitsX at Wits University. It is aimed at lawyers, activists, journalists and students; in fact, anyone who has an interest in a free and open media on the continent, and potentially, that means everyone.
I worked with Jeanette at the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), where she was its founding director from 1994. But, her activism on media freedom issues stretched back much longer than that, from her days as a journalist at the Rand Daily Mail and subsequently her role as General Secretary of the South African Union of Journalists (SAUJ). She also played a key role in two organisations that helped bring about the transition to media democracy in South Africa, the Campaign for Open Media (COM) and the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting (CIB).
However, Jeanette didn’t confine her focus to South Africa only. As director of the Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa), she helped carry the work of media freedom and pluralism forward in the region. She played countless other roles as a media freedom activist in Africa and internationally: too many to list here.
Jeanette’s enduring passion was to ensure a climate for a free and robust media and strong democracies more generally. Jeanette recognised that there was an enduring link between media freedom and popular democracy. Hers was not a tunnel vision, focusing on the media and ignoring the rest of society. She understood that it is pointless and counterproductive to promote the first without promoting the second, as doing so risked turning media freedom into an elite issue, which broader society would see little value in defending. Consequently, her interests and involvements extended far beyond media freedom and into work around creating the preconditions for free and fair elections, for instance.
We must all pass on from this world at some stage, hopefully once we’ve made enduring contributions towards making the world a better place. However, the danger of such a knowledgeable, skilled person passing on, is that their contributions end and their legacy may fade in time to come. What better way of ensuring that this does not happen than for Jeanette to continue contributing to building the next generation of media and freedom of expression policymakers and activists.
The world has changed fundamentally since Jeanette made her contributions. Democracy cannot be taken for granted as a dominant political form anymore; in fact, de-democratising right-wing populism is on the march in many countries. Still struggling with the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, the African continent has faced decades of marginalisation from the world economic system.
More recently, though, there has been a ‘new scramble for Africa’, where the world’s superpowers are competing for the continent’s rich mineral resources. The rhetoric of ‘Africa rising’, which became popular at the peak of the 2011 commodity cycle, has faded, and as austerity became real in more countries, ‘Africa uprising’ has become a daily reality. From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Uganda and Zimbabwe, an increasingly militant and fearless younger generation has taken to the streets to protest, and old state intimidation tactics have largely failed to dampen their voices.
So, while there are huge pressures on the African continent, with state and non-state actors scrambling for control of its resources, markets and territories, the continent’s peoples are challenging injustice and inequality wherever they find it. This means that renewed struggles for freedom of expression and media freedom are likely to find fertile ground, and which makes this course so timely. Who can forget the recent popular uprising in Sudan, with such strong participation from women. These developments give new hope for the continent, despite the gloomy picture internationally.
This is the global and regional context in which this course is being launched. It starts on October 4, and lasts for six weeks, and interested students can enrol through the EdX site. Appropriately, the course focuses on building a layer of democratic policymakers, to enable them to participate in processes that are often notoriously technocratic and elitist.
Media policymaking often takes place over the heads of the very people it claims to serve, and this course will equip people with the knowledge tools to change that. It focuses on the core principles of freedom of expression and media freedom, democratic media policymaking that emphasise media pluralism and diversity, the merits of different media regulatory models, policy issues relating to online media and the digital environment and effective civil society engagement.
Those who value freedom of expression and media freedom are indebted to the people who have made this fitting tribute to the life and legacy of Jeanette Minnie a reality.