Dictators, Democracy and Free Press: A Commentary on Black Tuesday.

“The homage we can pay to truth is to use it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).

Imagine Robert Mugabe decides to sue Nandos and the creatives behind this ad for defamation. I’m almost sure that in addition to disputing whether or not the Nandos ad is defamatory of the Zimbabwean President, the legal team for Nandos would also rely on the right to freedom of expression which is a basic political right found in almost all the Constitutions of the world.

Freedom of expression is closely linked with freedom of the press and other media as one of the essential ingredients of democracy. The press, especially for countries committed to the path of democratisation, is meant to serve as the medium of delivery and transmitting ideas to and from the People. There is however a danger of unnecessarily and irresponsibly hiding behind democracy to justify every action of the press. It is within the context of these two extremes that the following comments are made on South Africa’s latest Bill to be tabled before Parliament: The Protection of Information Bill aka ‘Secrecy Bill’

This Bill, which was passed in Parliament on 22, November 2011 (known as ‘Black Tuesday’) seeks to criminalise any disclosure of documents when it could cause harm to South Africa’s national security punishable by a 25 year jail term. This has been construed by most commentators as a law that seeks to prohibit investigative journalism and whistle-blowing.

For a comprehensive analysis of this Bill within the wider constitutional context, see this note by my alma-mater’s Prof. Pierre De Vos posted here.

While I agree with Reuters, Times, Economist who have fallen short of calling the Secrecy Bill unconstitutional, I applaud De Vos’s pragmatic approach to try and re-work the Bill to make it constitutionally sound rather than throwing up our arms in fits of rage. The intentions behind this Bill, I would like to believe, are noble and indeed good, even though the drafting leaves alot to be desired.

The rationale behind arriving at a compromise on the drafting of this Bill is clear: “arriving at a Bill that conforms to what is acceptable in an open and democratic society to achieve the legitimate purpose of restricting some state information in order to protect citizens from terrorism and other attacks and to protect citizens from attacks against the constitutional order itself (attacks, it might be add, which can easily emanate form the security and intelligence services itself – just as the people of Egypt)”

National security aside, it can also be argued that a law such as the “Secrecy Bill”, if re-drafted, could not only encourage investigative journalists but also foster a culture of responsible journalism. The power of the press in influencing public opinion and activity goes without challenge. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson of the United States of America, while withdrawing from the American Presidential Race due to divisions caused among Americans by the Vietnam War reminded the Nation:

“…for journalists or presidents, where there is great power there must also be great responsibility.”

Kenya, like most developing countries faces a host of socio-economic and political problems. Our population is rising on a geometric scale while our economy is hobbling athritically. While one admits that mismanagement of the economy by those in power is to blame for the country’s social and economic woes, objectivity dictates that other factors such as the prevailing international economic climate must not be ignored. Therefore, there is a moral duty on the part of the press not to misinform the public on the country’s socio-political and economic circumstances. It follows that the press has a duty towards the general public to guide them in the on-going process of constitutional transformation and not to merely harp on tired cliches and to engage in popular sloganeering as is sometimes evident in most print and broadcast media.

As my alma-mater’s Prof. PLO Lumumba once put it:

“The press is the barometer of the socio-political climate in a country in a country and a society which has no respect for its press is a society a drift, a gargatuan headed to the rocks. However, the press has a reciprocal duty, it must not sacrifice truth and objectivity at the altar of arrant sensationalism, half-truths and shibboleths which only appeal to transient euphoria.”

To this one would add that there has been too much focus on the press’s perspective of encroachment of their freedom of expression and not a lot of attention on the merits that could come out of a law like the Protection of Information Bill, if better drafted. Although we are fully opposed to the Bill in its current form, we think South Africa and indeed Kenya need a law that curtails the press from acting in a manner that could jeopardise national security and sovereignty, all in the name of investigative journalism.

In the end, investigative journalism must be responsible journalism.

One thought on “Dictators, Democracy and Free Press: A Commentary on Black Tuesday.

  1. Any bill that seeks to curtail freedom of the press is never well intentioned. And historically, such a bill is always a double edged sword. Those pushing for such laws forget that they will not remain in power for long…and those against forget that one day…they will have issues that will need to be covered…. hahaha!!!

    But this “…….for journalists or presidents, where there is great power there must also be great responsibility…” holds true for this debate on freedom of expression.

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