Joel Netshitenzhe - Keynote address: AGM of the Freedom of Expression Institute

25 June 1998

25 June 1998

I. Millions of coaches

This is not the best day to speak to any audience, after SA's dreams in France 98 were shattered; but in this experience are some lessons for freedom of expression. Forty million coaches, each with an opinion about how SA could have won the Soccer World Cup: fire the coach; fire the SAFA executive ... Players demanding to be fielded, and resolving to do it their way ... Those in positions of authority calling for discipline and tenacity to the rules - rules made to be broken; and with "palookas" to boot. Most people say now we can sit back and enjoy the World Cup. But South Africans spoke and shall continue to speak: anger the coach; unsettle the players; irritate those in positions of authority; and win matches in our own minds. That is freedom of expression. Indeed, from this cacophony of millions of views, we should improve ourselves as we prepare for the future!

Thanks for the invitation to share views at your AGM: and congratulations in a period in which structures of civil society, so critical in battles of the past, are struggling to stay afloat. It's not often that a representative of government is called upon to speak at a function on freedom of expression. But this reflects the fact that, though GCIS and FXI are in different and seemingly contradictory terrain, we are all activists for freedom of expression. During the years of resistance, we were all inspired by the commitment that what emerges from our sacrifices should be an antithesis of the apartheid system with its mind control and attempts to impoverish the intellect.

I took the liberty to remind you of the pain of the World Cup to underline the fact that millions of views are critical building blocks for progress. Freedom for people to air their views is a condition for any society to maintain balance in its endeavours. Yet it should be emphasised, again from this experience, that if society has to succeed, there should be an overriding objective; there should be rules and frameworks within which freedoms are exercised. If not exercised judiciously, we can find ourselves floating rudderless. Especially for a society in transition, freedom of expression can be a double-edged sword.

II. Freedom of expression in the current period

We are in quite an intense period with lessons galore about freedom of speech and the challenges that attach to it. We knew then that apartheid sought to stifle free exchange of views. Now we all know that it also tried literally to poison the mind. We are now informed that, through the CBW programme, they tried to debilitate Nelson Mandela so he could not lead us to democracy. We know that those who were brave enough to investigate and expose these programmes were bankrupted by a judiciary which was staunch in its defence of the system.

But around these TRC hearings the question of freedom of expression and the right of the public to know has arisen in stark fashion. How do we ensure these rights, but do it in such a way that it does not lead to the proliferation of dangerous weapons - that this country does not violate very sensible international conventions to which it is party. In the midst of this discussion, there has been suspicion of positions taken by government. Some understanding has been reached with the TRC; government is monitoring the hearings, and reserves the right to intervene regarding the question of whether some of the hearings should be held in camera. In such instances, the TRC can then independently determine what should be made public. This government does not have anything to hide. It is committed that ours should be governance in the sunshine.

The approach of government to the issue of freedom of expression is underpinned by the Constitution and Bill of Rights; by numerous pieces of legislation and practices of state and governmental institutions such as parliament, the Judicial Services Commission, the IBA, the Public Protector, the Auditor-General and many others. It should be acknowledged though that there will always be a temptation on the part of those in positions of authority to treat their activity as confidential, that it is only too unfortunate if things become. We should constantly guard against this. It should be acknowledged also that some criticism of government will go overboard, and that some will be hiding in public authority. But in the overall, our society enjoys a unique condition, especially for a developing country in the midst of revolutionary transformation.

Besides the things mentioned above, a few weeks ago, Cabinet approved the Open Democracy Bill which was due to be certified this week for submission to parliament before the end of the month. The Bill identifies the overriding objective as "generally, to promote transparency and accountability of all organs of state by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information and by empowering the public to effectively scrutinise, and participate in, governmental decision-making that affects them". It guarantees access to information in government hands and on the functioning of government; it guarantees access to personal information in both government and private hands and the right to correct such information; and it protects whistle-blowers who expose corruption, serious maladministration and dishonesty. Such is the commitment of our new society to the right to information and freedom of expression.

Students of social science will marvel at the kind of political transition that South Africa is undergoing. Why is it that at such an early period of transformation - awash with dangers of violent and other unconstitutional resistance - the government believes that sunshine is better than secrecy! Some may say this was imposed on the liberation movement in negotiations. But one real answer is the idealism of the resistance fighters and the principles that underpinned the anti-apartheid struggle. Yet another is the type of solutions that we found as we started to build the new order in the womb of the old. FXI members will remember not only the struggles against apartheid censorship in the earlier years; but also how we burnt the mid-night oil at the beginning of this decade to craft the IBA Act as well as regulations for the selection of the SABC Board.

III. Freedom of expression in a political transition

These experiences contributed a great deal to what we have today. But we should also acknowledge that there is an inherent self-interest in what those in government do. There is a sense in which openness in our conditions is one of the most effective weapons for the promotion of the democratic project and for its defence.

In the first instance, government, and the GCIS in particular, proceed from the premise that when people have the factual information they need; when they are able to form balanced opinions about the direction in which the country should go; when they know what government is doing and what their rights are - then they are better able to take active part in changing their lives for the better. They are better able to access resources, to lay claim to their rights in the economic arena as workers, as middle strata seeking to remove the glass ceiling of apartheid, as aspirant capitalists struggling to be at the centre of the country's economic endeavours. Thus the right to information and freedom of expression are a necessary condition for our difficult transformation process. Change cannot be driven merely from on high, from the towers of Union Buildings or the hallowed chambers of parliament. Indeed, to promote transformation, and to ensure that the public is fired to defend democracy, it is necessary that the people understand the processes at hand.

There is a measure of self-interest for those in government to preach "governance in the sunshine" also because they know that they cannot use the apartheid instruments of state to effect change. It is in all our interest to shed light on the nooks and crannies of the remnants of the apartheid state - the system of patronage, the networks of corruption and nepotism, the web of Third Force elements burrowing in state structures and beyond. Exposure of all this - which is part of the splendid work the TRC is doing - helps to bring to the surface the boil in our body politic that needs to be lanced.

As Government Communications, our priorities are inspired by these principles. For these reasons, we have put a high premium on development information: including the use of radio, mobile videos, creative arts and culture as means of bringing information to millions who have no access to vital information. This also requires close working relations with structures of civil society. It requires the speeding up of the project to set up telecentres and Multi-Purpose Information Centres.

We believe also that media diversity is critical to free speech. In this regard, we fully agree with the submission of FXI to Comtask that the foundation of the values of freedom of expression is "the search for truth via the free exchange of ideas, the pursuit of individual autonomy and self-fulfilment, and the exigencies of political activity". Certainly, this cannot be realised in a situation in which 82% of all ABC-registered publications are in the hands of four monopolies, who in turn also control the distribution channels.

Few will dispute the fact that South African electronic media has entered its most vibrant period in history, precisely because the three-tier structure of ownership allows diverse views and styles and content to be heard. And I hope fewer still will argue against the proposals of Comtask that print media ownership needs to be regulated through the Competition Bill that Cabinet approved yesterday; that distribution should be exercised on a common carrier basis to eliminate bias; and that an independent Media Development Agency should be set up to channel funds from government, the industry and international donors to those in need. The call for diversity in the news-rooms of existing establishments cannot be overemphasised, and the efforts of the National Editors' Forum to address this through its Corrective Action Committee deserves unqualified support. All this should help ensure that the search for the truth via the free exchange of ideas, that FXI referred to, is not dictated to by wealth or economic or political power.

IV. Free speech and limitations

It is therefore critical that the declarations in the Constitution and legislation about free speech should be backed up by programmes primarily aimed at affording those who are disadvantaged the wherewithal to air their views. One cannot manufacture voices or force people to speak; but it is our responsibility as FXI and GCIS to help create the conditions for those who wish, to have their voices heard. The search for the truth via the free exchange of views also means the right to impart information and ideas, as instrument such as human rights commission of the European Community acknowledges.

At the same time, it is universally accepted that freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It is neither an end in itself, but an important foundations of the broader freedoms and human rights. In fact, there is a sense in which it can be a double-edged sword, especially in our conditions of a delicate transition. It requires regulation and management based on both formalities of the constitution and legislation, as well as sensibilities of a democratic instinct. This finds expression:

  • firstly, in the conditions contained in the Constitution about propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence and advocacy of racial, ethnic, gender and religious hatred;
  • secondly, the Open Democracy Bill contains its own limitations regarding issues of privacy, security and so on; and it also goes further to propose variable fees and measures that will prevent attempts to gain commercial advantage - indeed so that the rights in the Bill do not become a pastime for the rich and the powerful;
  • thirdly, we do have experience in the past few years of rights used for purposes of undermining society's regime of rights - privileged people seeking to undermine transformation in the name of human rights;
  • further, free speech should go with responsibility, especially with regard to the media: the recent story about a body-guard of the Deputy President with stolen cars which do not exist; and the Sunday Telegraph on a fabricated deal with Libya are cases in point; and the question is what the media themselves should do as a collective to contain especially disinformation campaigns;
  • lastly, after years of censorship and self-censorship, we need to guard against self-interested censorship, i.e. the refusal to publish facts which are true, or opinion articles, interview and even letters simply because they are critical of policy in a media establishment.

V. Some challenges

Arising from the mission that FXI has set itself, are questions of paradigm that need to posed: Is the institute doing enough to promote freedom of expression by assisting doing enough to promote freedom of expression by assisting to bring this freedom to the poor and disadvantaged, or has it merely set itself the task of being watchdog of a supposedly repression - and secrecy-prone government? Is the Institute involved in the debates around the issue of diversity on the side of the disadvantaged or is it merely concerned of diversity on the side of the disadvantaged or is it merely concerned with maintaining the status quo? Does the institute have a role in helping to broaden the intellectual horizons of communicators both in government and the media, so they can help society grasp the complexities of our transition? What role can it play in the great national debate around the question of a national consensus so as to contribute to taking the country to new heights?

We raise these questions because we believe that FXI and GCIS can in many areas work as partners in pursuit of development information, in the search for media diversity, and in assisting rural and other disadvantaged communities to leapfrog stages into the information age - do all this without compromising each other's independence. We are also keenly aware and grateful that GCIS is in a sense a product of the work of the FXI, in terms both of the individual leaders who took part in the Comtask process and the collective contribution of the institute as a whole.

In conclusion, if you were to ask me what fundamental challenges face activists for freedom of expression today, I would say: As we now sit back and freely enjoy the Soccer World Cup, let the 40-million coaches flourish; let their voices be heard. But they will need some sense of direction and consensus about the destination, so in future we can succeed in the actual field of play!

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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