As South African media activists face off against the ANC government over the Protection of Information Bill, Nigerian human rights lawyer Maxwell Kadiri says protesters would do well to tap into the support of media freedom fighters throughout the African continent. But for this to happen, South Africans need to reach out and share in others' struggles too. By MANDY DE WAAL.
As South Africa wages a long, hard battle against the proposed media appeals tribunal, the Protection of Information Bill and other moves by the government to curtail press freedoms, what happens in this country is likely to have a ripple effect in the southern African region, says human rights lawyer Maxwell Kadiri. During a recent trip to South Africa to participate in a conference at Wits University on the rights and responsibilities of African media, Kadiri said the country’s media activist organisations were missing a trick by not leveraging the power of continental connections better.
“Media workers from smaller southern African countries at the conferences told us again and again about how developments in South Africa have an impact on their own countries. Very often South Africa is watched and used as an example,” he says.
A case in point was South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act, which Kadiri, who works with the Open Society Justice Initiative’s Africa Programme, said is held up as the gold standard for access to information on the continent and beyond. “It would be absolutely disastrous if there was a regression in the context of Paia. Of the six countries in Africa that have this type of law granting access to information, even though Zimbabwe’s is a bad one, the only place where it has been implemented to some extent has been in South Africa. Uganda has had its law since 2005, but is not much further in terms of implementation. Liberians got theirs on 6 October 2010. In Ethiopia the law is supposed to come into effect in 2011 and in Angola not much is known about the level of implementation (of such a law). In this context it becomes obvious what a huge negative impact it would have on all the advocacy initiatives pushing for access to information on the continent if (South Africa’s) Paia were adversely affected,” said Kadiri.
A solicitor and advocate before the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Kadiri has extensive experience in media reformation laws, protecting and strengthening media freedoms and ensuring transparent and accountable governance. He said a strong connection between Africa’s biggest economy and activists in smaller surrounding countries was not evident. “If you extrapolate this to the broader African continent, one can begin to understand why there is a ‘disconnect’ between South Africa and the rest of Africa. South Africa is very much seen as a country out there on its own, apart from the rest of Africa. I say this with great humility and fully realising that I am not an expert on South Africa, but there is so much to be gained by creating an active network of support across the continent, particularly when it comes to raising hell over developments on the Protection of Information Bill and other government actions that seek to restrict media freedoms.”
The Bill has been the focus of considerable protest action in South Africa. The Right2Know coalition lobbied against it with a demonstration outside Durban’s City Hall, while earlier a show of silent dissent at Parliament in Cape Town raised the ire of the ANC. Some 500 people marched to Parliament with their mouths taped shut to signify the gagging effect the Bill would have, and nine coalition members intended sitting in on a portfolio committee meeting on it, but were barred from that meeting. Legal action between the coalition and Parliament may be in the offing if protesters are barred from future meetings.
Kadiri advised that getting activists from Africa involved in the cause could prove beneficial. “Speaking from a limited perspective of South Africa, my sense is that groups here need to do a lot more. There is a sense that people on the continent feel we all contributed to the struggle against apartheid, and yet, in post-apartheid (South Africa) we haven’t seen that level of support being provided from this end to other parts of the continent. The political pressure and impact that a more united, cohesive activist front could bring to bear would be huge. But that will not happen if colleagues in other parts of the continent don’t also see those in South Africa sharing their concerns, sharing their struggles and sharing in their campaigns. When you don’t reach out, you miss out on the synergies from those cross-border linkages.”
The coverage marginalised communities get in the South African media is another issue that weighs heavily on Kadiri’s mind. “At the Wits conference an example was given that was quite telling. It was cited that the only way a person from Diepsloot would get into the mainstream press was by killing someone.” An impoverished, sprawling squatter township north of the mink-and-manure-belt of Sandton, Diepsloot is a slum where many of the hundreds of thousands of people who inhabit the area live without basic amenities. For most, home is a makeshift dwelling created out of metal sheeting, plastic, bits of wood, old tyres or whatever other suitable waste residents can lay their hands on. Like most urban slum areas, the service-delivery issues affecting the region aren’t news. The only way people in Diepsloot become news is if they burn tyres, stone cars or stage a violent protest against local government’s service-delivery failures.
The fact that someone in Diepsloot would have to kill a person to make the news expresses how bad or how marginalised that community is in terms of getting their views out.” Kadiri said there is a contradiction in South Africa in that both the ANC and the media lay claim to being the authentic representatives of the people. “It is a dangerous situation to be in, to become a media for the elite. When this happens, the real issues in the communities don’t get addressed because they don’t get heard in the media. To some extent development planning and development efforts are influenced by what is heard or reflected in the media.” Kadiri said, given the ruling party’s attitude towards the media, it was dangerous that huge sections of the population were being neglected when it came to government development issues.
Kadiri, who calls Abuja his home, says there is a greater level of representation or balance in the media in Nigeria. “Although ownership is in the hands of the elite, there is a strong realisation of the need to capture readership and distribution and this drives the media to represent more diverse views in print.” Kadiri says the liberalisation of the broadcasting industry in Nigeria in 1993 enabled greater reach for radio in rural communities. “More recently the Nigerian government approved a community broadcasting policy supposed to allow for community stations, but we have yet to see a rollout of several of those stations. But at least there is a plan for the media to play a social responsibility role in ensuring diverse groups, including marginalised communities, get their views aired in the media.” FAM
Mandy de Waal is a writer based in South Africa, who focuses on the media, corruption, technology and innovation. She has written for the Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press and a number of other titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick and Free African Media. A judge for the Discovery Health Journalism Awards, De Waal also sits on the panel of judges for the Pica Awards convened by the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa.
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Photo: Human rights lawyer Maxwell Kadiri.