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Freedom of expression for a few in South Africa

By Azwi Mufamadi

Steven Friedman addressed an audience at this year’s National Arts Festival Think!Fest, where the veteran political analyst argued that freedom of expression is enjoyed by those who are well-connected in South Africa.

“The blunt reality is that freedom of expression is enjoyed in great abundance by the middle class (black and white) in this country and is still something that the majority of citizens are yet to experience”, said Professor Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, in his lecture during ThinkFest.

The elite few that are able to exercise freedom of expression are the ones that engage the government on behalf of society. “The fight against public power in this country, the very necessary power to ensure that government does not trample people’s liberties has essentially been a middle class battle”, said Friedman. “It’s essentially been a battle fought by well-connected interests in the suburbs who tend to see the world of the suburb as the world of all South Africans.”

Friedman added that the media have claimed to speak to power on behalf of the people. He warned his audience to be wary of this claim as the “media speaks to power on behalf of another power”. “Media represents active citizenship of some of us,” he said.

He explained that the media does not tell us that the kind of freedom that we enjoy in the suburbs is not enjoyed in the townships. People in the township do not exist to the mainstream media, they only exist as objects.

Friedman said that the media does not explain the reason behind people’s protests in reports about the so-called ‘service delivery protest’. “In most of these protests people are not demanding service delivery,” said Friedman. “They are trying to escape service delivery because what service delivery usually means is some bureaucrat in the office deciding what is good for everybody else.”

He quoted an instance where members of Abahlali basemjondolo were beaten for challenging the mayor which was not covered or discussed in the media. “The fact that members of Abahlali basemjondolo have been subjected at that stage to sustained police brutality over a period of time is simply nothing we discuss because presumably the freedom of shack dwellers is of no interest to exalted people who are worried about the freedoms of newspaper editors.”

He continued: “What we are dealing with here is a situation in which freedom is defined as the freedom of the middle class. Freedom is defined as freedom of those of us who attend meetings like this rather than those of us who join organisations like Abahlali basemjondolo and those who don’t get to join organisations at all.”

Although the people who reside in the suburbs have the right to participate in democracy, difficulties will arise when they persist in seeing the entire world as their world. He explained that the difficulty that we are in is that the fight for freedom in this country is increasingly being seen as a luxury. “It will be seen as something that the middle classes do in order to keep back the demands of the rest of society for inclusion and for equality,” said Friedman.

If the media is simply silencing some voices and giving some a platform, we need not see it as a victim but as an institution that wields power. “Media protects the freedom of a narrow section of the population,” he said.

Friedman said that if certain groups of people are not free to participate in democracy then none of us are free. “What we need to understand in this country is that freedom and liberty is for everybody,” he said. “When we look at people making calls for freedom we need to be sure that what we are looking at is an inclusive demand for freedom rather than a call for possessive individualism.”

Friedman’s lecture was part of the ‘Media and Citizenship’ initiative of the Mellon Foundation Humanities Focus Area at Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies.

Media & Citizenship – networking

By Vanessa Malila

July was an important month for the Mellon Focus Area in the Humanities placed within the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. Four of the members of the project attended the International Association of Media and Communications Research (IAMCR) Conference held between the 16th and 19th July in Durban. Prof Wasserman and Prof Garman presented a paper titled ‘Speaking out as citizens: voice, agency and participation in post-apartheid South Africa’. Dr Malila presented a paper titled ‘The role of the media in the construction of citizenship amongst South African youth: between marginalization and participation’. They were joined by PhD candidate Marietjie Oelofsen who attended the conference. While the conference afforded the team members the opportunity to both present their work and be exposed to work from around the world, it also allowed the project the opportunity to invite experienced political communications researcher and academic Dr Katrin Voltmer (who also attended IAMCR) to visit Grahamstown – close enough to Durban to take a small detour before heading back to the University of Leeds where she is Senior Lecturer in Political Communications; Director of Research; and Course Director of the MA in Political Communication.

Dr Voltmer’s research has examined the changing relationships between the media and politics, and more recently has been involved in an international research project which has examined the changing relationships between journalists, the media and politics in new democracies. Having been involved in this project, Dr Wasserman, took the opportunity to invite Dr Voltmer to Grahamstown to discuss synergies and opportunities for future collaboration between the work she does and the Mellon focus area on Media and Citizenship. Dr Voltmer spoke to the School of Journalism and Media Studies about the project, which aimed specifically to examine how journalists in new democracies understand and interpret the concept of press freedom, how it is ‘constructed’ and ‘domesticated’ in different cultural and political contexts; and how these interpretations affect their daily routines and practices.

Some of the findings presented by Dr Voltmer cover three areas: Professional responsibility, social responsibility and political responsibility. In terms of professional responsibility, Dr Voltmer notes that “South African and Namibian journalists by and large adopt the professional norms of Western journalism and liberal democracy. But in some cases they stress the need to contextualise these norms, against the background of the histories of these countries and their continued struggles to remain free from government control. But it becomes also evident that in their experience adopting these universal norms of journalism makes them part of an international professional class, and that this associations provides them with a justification to criticise their own governments.” In relation to social responsibility, the South African journalists (much like the Namibian journalists) expressed a strong commitment to giving voice to the marginalised and serving the community, and as Dr Voltmer notes “they believe that news should be presented from the perspective of the poor, not just the elite”. Finally, in relation to political responsibility, one sees a strong correlation between the South African and Polish journalists, who believe that journalists must play a central role in political responsibility based on the lack of an effective opposition and Dr Voltmer adds that “many of them refer to the past and their own involvement in the opposition movement as an explanation for their sense of duty to serve democracy.”

A key theme which emerges from the research and the findings is the strong reference to the past and when asked about this further, she notes that “the past is still a main point of reference for everyone in Germany” and that this is a major strength for the country as a source of moral reasoning. She adds that in South Africa, we tend to expect the link with Apartheid to have diminished, but if one looks at the example of Nazi Germany which took place over 50 years ago, one still sees a strong connection to the past. As South African’s we should be aware of our past and allow it to be a strength in the process of moving forward. The reference to South Africa’s past continues to dominate society, citizens and the media – and by Dr Voltmer’s estimation it should. She uses the example of one of the South African journalists who were interviewed for the research as a key example.
“We have a certain history. Our history is not the same as many other countries. So when we write we have to keep that at the back of our minds…we need to also educate our readers that the people, especially the young people of today that they are fully sympathetic to what happens there…that they have it because of our history, our struggle”

The Mellon project on Media and Citizenship will be continuing to network with Dr Voltmer and hope to pursue future projects which create synergies between her work on political communication in new democracies and the work done by the project on the relationship between the media and citizens in South Africa.

Beeld coverage of Roelof Van Wyk’s photographs at ‘Being & Belonging’

Being & Belonging – at Think!Fest

According to Wikipedia, Steven Friedman, is a widely quoted public intellectual and activist. The interesting bit here is that although the online encyclopedia is an untrusted source, the quote-ability of Steven Friedman is almost a truism.

Journalists were frantically writing delightful phrases at the Being and Belonging lecture series where Friedman tackled the issue of the power and the media. The title of Frieman’s lecture Speaking Power’s truth is a play on the famous Edward Said quote ‘speaking truth to power’.

Friedman’s contention was that the media do not necessarily challenge power and speak the truth that people want addressed. “The mainstream media are protecting the freedom of a small section of the population,” he said. The media engage largely in a misrepresentation of issues. They speak on behalf of the middle class to another section of the elite.

According to Friedman democracy, just like utopia, is an idea that we need to strive towards. The difficulty we have in South Africa is that it is difficult for a large majority of the population to access information that enables them to be a part of a democratic country. “People don’t participate in a democracy not because they don’t want but because they cannot”, he said.

The problem is that the media is not inclusive of the poor and marginalized. “The media is actually excluding some people and not representing them. The fact that the media represents the creative citizenship of all South Africans is slightly inaccurate. The media represents the citizenship of some of us,” said Friedman.

Friedman used the recent e-tolling saga as an example, which was framed a victory for poor people. According to Friedman it is a victory for the motor industry and the trade unions. The poor who use mini bus taxi’s mostly would have been unaffected by e-tolling. “Freedom of expression is enjoyed by the middle class in this country and the poor have yet to obtain it. What we are seeing is part of a bigger problem. The fight for public power has been a middle class battle. Freedom and democracy are for everyone. If activists are not free, then we are all not free. The media needs to represent everyone. We need to widen our understanding of freedom and democracy. We need to include the voices of everyone.”

The Friedman lecture was followed by a panel discussion titled Mediated Citizenship which included David Holwek Communication director at the Charles Kettering Foundation, Bongi Bozo, the coordinator of the Eastern Cape Communication Forum and political analyst Xolela Mangcu. The panel also discussed how difficult it is for journalists to claim to represent an entire society when they often focus on middle class issues.

The last panel discussion of the day which included a representative from the activist group Abahlali Base Mjondolo looked at how social movements can activate citizenship. Political scientist Harry Boyte said that “Abahlali intimates a larger project. It’s about the liberation of the world. It is about the politics of civil agency and that is different from what we get in the mainstream media”.

If the media are at fault for a skewed representation of society, the Activism and Agency panel focused on how individuals can make the change they want in the world. Politics lecturer at Rhodes University, Richard Pithouse who has worked closely with local civic organisations said that “People are seen as in need of help. This obliterates the agency of the people being served. Abahlali show that poor people can think. They want to be co-creators in policy issues,” said Pithouse.

The lectures and panel discussions were part of the ‘Being & Belonging in South Africa’ series of discussions held during the Think!Fest at the National Arts Festival 2012. The Being & Belonging programme is part of the Mellon Humanities Focus Area project called ‘Media and Citizenship’ based at the School of Journalism and Media Studies, at Rhodes University.

Being & Belonging Exhibition coverage from CUE

Cue Newspaper did a great write up on our Exhibition (currently on at the National Arts Festival). You can see it below, or find it here.

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