South Africa has come a long way since the dark day of October 19, 1977, when the apartheid regime firmly tightened the noose on press freedom.
Known as Black Wednesday, this day has rightly become South Africa’s official media freedom day. On that day in 1977, the racist all-white government banned 19 Black Consciousness Movement organizations and arrested many activists. He further shut down The World and Weekend World newspapers and detained Editor-in-Chief Percy Qoboza for five months in Modderbee Prison under section 10 of the Homeland Security Act of 1950.
Imprisoning journalists without trial, banning them and forcing some into exile have become the order of the day. Various voices have been suppressed and the public sphere has been populated with propaganda. The media operated in a minefield of complex laws designed to make it nearly impossible to release information without government permission, especially on political and national security issues.
Adoption of an inclusive constitution
Finally, in 1996, with the adoption of the inclusive South African Constitution, Article 16 of the Bill of Rights elegantly broke that noose and created space for the refocusing of centuries-old traditions of lekgotla or indaba – also known under the name of the public sphere – where everyone was encouraged to express themselves. It further brought journalists back to the age-old practice of imbongi, the person chosen to praise and criticize without fear or favor to ensure the health of a community. Linked to the notion of imbongi, and further contributing to our understanding of press freedom, are the roles of storyteller, griot, sanusi, veridique, seer, sangoma, healer, village madman. These were people who, as part of their roles or vocation, often held a mirror for community introspection and spoke the truth using code, song, mime, physical expression. , satire, mockery as well as symbolism and allegory.
At the international level, article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right to freedom of expression. It states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium and regardless of frontiers.
In South Africa, the relevant clause reads as follows:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes
Freedom of the press and other media;
Freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
Freedom of artistic creation; and
Academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
(2) The right set out in subsection (1) does not extend to
Propaganda for war;
Imminent incitement to violence, or
Advocacy for hatred based on race, ethnicity, sex or religion which constitutes incitement to harm.
The limitations imposed on free speech in this clause align well with the spirit of Ubuntu which does not tolerate hate speech. The core principle of the philosophy that a person is a person through other people is at the heart of an approach that has evolved over the centuries in this part of the world.
Media Freedom Day in South Africa
On Media Freedom Day in South Africa, these rights and practices are fully institutionalized and form the central pillar of a country shaping its future in the present.
They have been further embodied in our law. In Khumalo and others v. Holomisa, the Constitutional Court explained that:
“The written, audiovisual and electronic press play a particular role in protecting freedom of expression in our society. Every citizen has the right to freedom of the press and media and the right to receive information and ideas. The media are key agents in ensuring that these aspects of the right to freedom of information are respected. The ability of every citizen to be a responsible and effective member of our society depends on how the media fulfill their constitutional mandate.
These consolidations of freedom of expression and media freedom must be vigorously defended and protected. The easy spread of disinformation is the biggest challenge today and requires constant vigilance. Fortunately, there is a tremendous amplification of this challenge and through the back and forth, greater clarity of possible solutions will come over time.
Commitment to freedom of expression
The journalist chooses today to celebrate the commitment to freedom of expression, but believes that for South Africa to flourish, it must be recognized that the suppression of freedom of expression has not not been the only noose placed around our necks.
Colonialism and apartheid not only suppressed freedom of speech and silenced critics, but also systematically ignored and marginalized the voices of the vast majority. It was as if the majority just didn’t exist and their stories didn’t matter.
Buried deep within the South African psyche is a wealth of expression, including understandings and perceptions of the world and life that have been marginalized under colonialism and apartheid, which must come to the fore and can no longer be ignored. The Journalist on these pages provides a glimpse of the wealth of expression that has so long been withdrawn from national public life. Isn’t this the time for us to think in new and more dynamic ways about what it means to expand the public sphere? to revisit what it means – in our context of reconstruction and restoration – to ensure that there is truly a place of multiple voices? Hasn’t the moment come for us to broaden the list of our expressive ancestors and to deeply enrich our current discourse with a symphony of entries that frees itself from the constraints of recent colonial history that color both our prospects?