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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Gay > Rubrieke | Columns > Christina Engela: Fundamentally Speaking

You, The People

Christina Engela - 2010-08-19


One thing I learned from history is that when you want to isolate and persecute any community, country or group, the first thing you do is to remove the thinkers, leaders and strong-willed from that group. Without them, the rest of the sheep will swallow just about anything the government spoons into the funnel called the media. Stalin did it, Hitler did it, Mugabe has done it - and if the ANC has its way, history will simply have repeated itself.

The proposed new law to control the media and introduce censorship and restrictions by the government has been described as a significant step backwards for South Africa on the downward spiral to becoming like its corrupt and impoverished neighbour Zimbabwe.

You have to give them their due - at least the ANC seems to have paid attention to how the apartheid regime and, more recently, Robert Mugabe, have got clear away with corruption and oppression for decades – by controlling the media and the information which is disseminated to the masses - and which travels outside the borders of their domain. If the ANC can convince the masses that its actions, no matter how flawed and ill-conceived they may be, are justifiable, then, like the apartheid government, they can also indulge in murder and continue to deprive those less fortunate; continue to fail to deliver on empty election promises; dispose of those who go against their leadership – and all this with the approval of South African citizens and other global communities, who the government will ensure will not know the whole story.

Most certainly we will be in for a rough ride if this legislation is passed, just as in every country around the world where there is no free press. In the “Old South Africa” as it is now called, people used to disappear without a trace - such as the “Pebco Three” and numerous others over the years. If this law passes, and if the current behaviour of our government and their pet Hawks is anything to go by, the landscape of South Africa will be newly littered with the unreported evidence of Vlakplaas-style abductions and disappearances of individuals and journalists the government view as "liabilities".

All this just tells me that if this law passes, then it's time to leave. There is a fear - a legitimate fear – that many of us who criticise this government, for whatever reason, will be gagged - or begin to vanish mysteriously on pretexts such as "fraud" and other creative inventions. And of course media censorship could mean the closure of smaller community news agencies, such as Exit, Pink Tongue etc if they are deemed a “threat”. And since they are voices of a community the current government seems to fail at every given opportunity, I wouldn't put it past them.

One difference, though, between those bad old days and now: they didn't have the internet back then. These days, even with a media clampdown, word can still get out almost instantly of anything they get up to - and they can't censor what foreign press/media put out. They could only block it from reaching our own media.

A little while ago the elite police unit the Scorpions were busted up because they did their job too well. They were disbanded because they kept exposing and busting ANC cadres’ and MPs’ dirty little secrets and embarrassing the ruling party and the new ruling elite - who we all know are supposed to be “untouchable”. So the answer was simple: replace them with a unit that would be loyal to the ruling party and its aims - so, exit the Scorpions, and enter the Hawks - driving the same theatrical black cars along public highways at dangerous velocities and wearing the same image of brave crusaders against crime and corruption – at least until now.

The journalist arrested last week was most likely South Africa's first new political prisoner. Since when do elite cops crash a public meeting on the new media restriction/censorship laws, arrest a journalist (as a private citizen) for "fraud" without so much as an arrest warrant, search his house and car, confiscate property, and abduct him to another city? This is not appropriate or acceptable behaviour in a democracy. At least, not in a functioning democracy.

Who is an elected government in a constitutional democracy to decide it will not tolerate dissent?

And then, in swoops Julius - aka Kidi Amin - to back the government in turning the media into a compliant, muzzled lap-dog. Of course, that is hardly surprising, or even shocking, anymore - it is virtually expected, just like his rants and tirades about nationalising the country's mines (and who knows what else next?). What is shocking to me is that the ANCYL leader is already so internationally well known that I only need to use his first name and even people from faraway places know who I'm referring to. Considering the stereotype that claims most people in the West think Africa is a country somewhere near Mexico, this is incredible. Still, I should make the most of these freedoms while they exist, before I get abducted in a parking garage by hooded thugs working for some obscure government department that shares premises with Eishkom.

Secret police death squads and shallow mass graves. Intimidation and oppression. Blanket silencing of the media and manipulation of public opinion ... That is how the old South Africa worked under apartheid, and if you were around in those times and still don't know anything about it, then you're just plain ignorant.

Ironically, the system that facilitated this unlawful arrest and detention without a warrant showed significant flaws in its own house. There were no arrest or search warrants, and several prosecutors were reported to have dismissed any charges on the grounds of either insufficient or completely absent evidence of any kind - and the man was released a day or so later, late at night - only to appear in court in a strange town the next morning, to apply for bail. I may not be a legal expert, but surely a suspect has to apply for bail before being released? And if the media restrictions the government wants were already in place today, then nobody would have been allowed to report on it.

Such an aggressive and public move, in the presence of so many media representatives, sends a message. It's intimidation, and I believe that was the message - that media freedom will end and the State will have total control to advance its nefarious agendas in the dark - and woe betide anyone who opposes them. Political opponents and those who criticise the government will be silenced by law - or disappear from society, as in the old days. This is where it all begins.

Further, reports have surfaced that the government is looking at ways to take control of NGOs as well. Friends of mine in the media, reporters and investigative journalists, even other human rights activists, are now worried. Some of them are looking at life in other countries now because they fear they may end up in jail, serving 25 years for doing their jobs. I certainly can't blame them – in fact, the thought of leaving has occurred to me as well. Lucky for me, I am only small fry... at least, I think so.

But this "protection of information" matter is not all - no, it doesn't end there. What we are facing in South Africa right now is broad-front assault on the freedom of the common citizen by conservative elements in the South African government in association with several allied social minority groups who have taken it upon themselves to play "morality police".

It started a little while ago with the take-over of the SABC Board, remember? But having control of the national (now State) broadcaster/mouthpiece isn't enough, is it? And it's not enough already to own a few newspapers outright - now it's the free press and media that need to be brought to heel and muzzled as well. After all, it's not adequate just to misreport news or manufacture it while you have free press alongside to point out the obvious.

The censorship (aka pornography) bill by the Home Affairs minister and Erroll Naidoo of the FPI is also part of this move. It started out as a move to block child porn from the internet and mobile phones, and now has already expanded to include all porn - and most likely will soon affect all public media as well, and could include anything at all the government feels like controlling.

It's very clever: "protect the children" is the excuse, but the truth is it isn't about kids, it's about "morality police" violating the constitutional rights of citizens to see what they want to see on the pretext of “it's harmful”. And it's clever because it may be aimed at porn, but once that law is in effect, they can ban anything they deem "threatening" or "immoral" - and also, the most devious part of this plan is, if you oppose it, it makes you look like you are in favour of porn. Smart move.

Whether it is about "pornography" or "protection of information", both matters are aimed at introducing censorship and control of the media. At the end of the day it is a two-pronged attack on the civil rights of Joe and Jane Public - and if one, receiving much negative publicity, seems likely to fail, the other may well pass – making me think it has been planned this way.

The moment you hand over your responsibility to manage your own rights, morality, and freedoms to the government, that is the moment democracy fails.

Do not allow the government to impose censorship laws! Not on any excuse of "morality" or "State security".

The next thing we need to watch is how they will move to change the Constitution, because that is the last thing protecting human rights in South Africa.

That, and you, the people.