Monday, June 6, 2011

Ostriches No More

Jun 5, 2011

The info bill must be rejected if citizens are not to become like the whites who say they didn't know about apartheid evils, writes Joe Latakgomo 

The Big Read: Millions of white South Africans today claim they did not know what their government was doing in their name under apartheid. They claim they did not know what was happening and were denied information that would have enabled them to make rational and proper judgments about issues of the nation. 

Much of the white media at the time, including the broadcast media, which was the sole preserve of the ruling party, was complicit in this. The people, who are the ultimate source of power in a democracy, were denied information. Journalism in these circles had given up its role to interpret and disseminate information to the people, the better for them to be able to make judgments on men and issues. 

They saw the state of the nation in the hues that the government painted for them. 

Any newspaper that published news contrary to what the white electorate had been told was brushed with the paint of "dangerous terrorists" and accused of betrayal and lack of patriotism. Their journalists were called "communists", a term that led to their being ostracised, spat on, tarred and feathered, and even murdered. 

The government, and the white electorate, demanded that newspapers publish only what they wanted to hear, to the extent that truth itself became suspicious. 

I raise these issues in the light of the ruling ANC's determination to ram through its controversial Protection of Information Bill. 

In exactly the same way as the old National Party rammed through similar laws - including laws that turned the very people in government today into criminals and terrorists back then - our government is working hard to proscribe the public's right to information. 

The Right2Know Campaign has said this law would have the effect of "keeping valuable information away from people on the ground, particularly poor communities and their right to information on issues of service delivery and corruption". 

The government says, just like the white apartheid government said then, that it represents the vast majority of the people of this land. It will say that it was given an overwhelming mandate to rule in the most recent elections. Democracy, it will argue, has spoken. 

But it is precisely because we live in a democracy that the need for information is so acute. We need information to be able to make decisions. 

When the people delegate authority, they do not give politicians and other public servants, in other words servants who represent them, the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. 

If the people were intelligent enough to decide whom to vote for, as the ruling party itself claims, then surely they are intelligent enough to be able to discern what is wrong or right in reports. 

Freedom of the press was never meant to make it easier or more profitable for newspapers and their owners, but to enable them to give the public accurate information. 

Newspapers are not always wrong, but neither are they always right. Where they have erred, as far as the Avusa Media group is concerned, it is my responsibility to ensure remedies are instituted. 

Our government must learn from the experience of other democracies. In the US, the issue of whether to publish information or not has never been satisfactorily resolved. It cannot be because there are no absolutes in this issue. There is no black and white, but largely shades of grey. 

The US government desperately wanted information withheld during the build-up to the Bay of Biscayne debacle. Newspapers had been given information that the CIA was training Cuban dissidents to launch an invasion of their country from the Bay of Pigs. 

Editors wrestled with the decision of whether to publish or not to publish. They opted not to. The raid was a total disaster. 

Years later, President John Kennedy is reported to have remarked that he regretted that the media had not printed all the information they had on the plan as "it would have saved us from a colossal mistake". 

In our country, does the government want a meek media that publishes only government press handouts and photographs of politicians kissing babies and giving away house keys in staged media events? 

Herbert Drucker, in his book Communication is Power, summed it up superbly. Half a century in journalism, he says, "has convinced me that most people's idea of objective news is news that is stained in the brilliant hues of their own prejudices". 

If the government conspires to withhold the truth from the people, the people will surely judge it harshly when they find out that their trust has been betrayed. Everything that the government does, it does in the name of the public. 

These are the people whose media interests I represent.
Public servants are the stewards of the people. Our democracy does not need a public that will, down the line, like many white South Africans are doing today, claim that it did not know what its government was doing in its name. 


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