Back in 1988, the apartheid regime threatened to close down the Weekly Mail, now called Mail&Guardian. I played a minor role in defending the paper, known popularly as The Wail because it kept complaining about how terrible things were (and rightly at the time). I’ve just had cause to haul out my tattered copy of the paper’s history, …You have been warned, to compare against current events.
At the time, papers were under attack for “subversive” activities such as telling the truth, including things that were hardly state secrets because they were widely reported in the rest of the world. At one point, after a state of emergency was declared, Weekly Mail and other papers resorted to blacking out parts of articles that their lawyers thought would get them in trouble with the authorities. The Minister of Home Affairs was empowered to close down papers without recourse to the courts after a warning (hence the title of the history), so printing “subversive” material was risky. This is the first edition of the Weekly Mail after the emergency was enforced. Several issues followed equally blacked out, until the government decided that obscuring content like this was in itself subversive.
Mail&Guardian therefore knows fully the power of blacking out parts of an article, and that they should have to do this now, under a democratic rights-centric constitution is shocking. The circumstances of the case, a senior member of the government hiding behind legalities to refuse to confirm or deny that he lied in a police interview, are pretty disgusting in themselves. The stench of corruption of the arms deal in the early years of ANC rule will not go away until the whole thing is properly investigated, and this sort of defence against public exposure does not advance the cause of the ANC, rapidly becoming a rabble of defensive opportunists, far from the idealistic organisation that started out about 100 years ago.
When the minister threatened to close the paper down under provisions where a paper could be closed for a period of months as punishment for “subversion” the paper published this appeal. I was one of many who supported the paper. I collected about a dozen people who were prepared to put up money to buy an ad in the paper, and put their name to it, supporting it. No editor of another paper was willing to add their name. I spoke to one at length and he had all kinds of good reasons not to do so. He didn’t mention cowardice. Many others supported the paper in more meaningful ways than I could. Eventually the paper was closed for a month, a lesser “punishment” than was expected, though a hard financial blow for a small paper. During this forced vacation, I hosted a desktop publishing workshop presented by Irwin Manoim, one of the two editors at the time. This was more a morale-booster than money-spinner. Irwin had great design skills; I’m sure he could have made good money if he hadn’t taken on the impossible task of showing the mainstream media how to take on a police state.
Of course circumstances differ. Maharaj has threatened the paper with prosecution for “stealing” information, and has set the Hawks onto two reporters on the paper. Even is he is right, this is an incredibly heavy-handed response. If the paper has indeed broken the law, the evidence is right there, on the front page of the paper. All he has to do is refer it to the director of public prosecutions for an opinion as to whether it’s a prosecutable case. The paper’s lawyers argue otherwise, and in a constitutional democracy, it’s hard to accept the logic that the paper should have published and risked prosecution – but Maharaj is insisting on prosecution anyway. Bluster takes you only so far. Maharaj isn’t acting like an innocent person: he is doing everything possible to avoid answering direct questions. At least in today’s South Africa, these things will ultimately be heard out in the courts. But what is really worrying is that this is how the government behaves now, without draconian measures to punish whistle-blowers. How will they behave once the new law is in effect? And with talk of reining in the courts, and the recent fiasco over appointing one of the least qualified of the potential candidates as chief justice, how much longer will we be able to rely on the courts for protection from government excesses?
The government makes a huge issue of errors by the media, and they do make mistakes. But not half as many as the government, and none with as heavy a consequence. When did a newspaper ever fail to roll out anti-retrovirals, or fail to build RDP houses to an acceptable standard?
Against a hostile government, the media need to be doubly careful not to make mistakes. But we should not forget that ultimately the government is accountable to us, and if members of the government accused of corruption or inappropriate conflicts of interest are unable or unwilling to defend themselves, they are the issue, not the way the matter is reported. Some on the government side have tried to liken this to the Murdoch media scandal in the UK that closed News of the World. This is nothing like it. The Murdoch paper was eavesdropping on conversations to try to dig up dirt on private citizens. The Mail&Guardian has been trying to uncover corruption at the highest level. The UK scandal was about gross invasion of privacy in pursuit of profit. The South African situation is about a paper taking on a government over-sensitive to criticism, and unwilling to root out corruption in its ranks. UK: criminal behaviour with no public interest; South Africa: no proven criminal behaviour, strong public interest.
So how do you respond in a democratic society? A wide variety of civil society organisations have already mobilised around he secrecy bill. They should all mobilise to defend the paper. It just may need financial help to take on a series of big lawsuits. Should it come to that I would be happy to pitch in.
Time to wail again.
The Right2Know (R2K) campaign has issued a statement in support of M&G.