Censorship: Transparency versus Ethics

By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
Flickr_Andrew_XILast week a controversy exploded in the South African media concerning the alleged muzzling of the press by a high flying politician with an apparently shady background involving arms deals corruption.  In Zimbabwe, a partisan police force invaded the offices of a local weekly newspaper looking for evidence which might incriminate journalists who wrote a piece about an apparently failed medical aid society that has political connections.

The Mail & Guardian splashed a white on black headline which simply read “CENSORED” across an entire page of one of its editions, but the story goes a little deep than pure censorship.  The paper was about to break a story concerning a presidential spokesman, Mac Maharaj, and his involvement in the notoriously corrupt South African arms deal.  Allegations have been made that Maharaj had received funds from French arms dealer, Thomson-CSF.

The information leading to the intended exposure had been sourced from documents pertaining to an ‘in camera’ interview of Maharaj in terms of section 28 of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Act.  Evidence gathered in camera is sacrosanct, and it is illegal to possess or publish the contents of such an interview.  The Mail & Guardian’s self imposed censorship, under threat of criminal prosecution, would suggest they knew this. Government, and indeed Maharaj, appeared gleeful that they can slip under the protection of the NPA Act… a statute that even Maharaj has deemed unconstitutional!

The South African media has been quick to condemn this latest onslaught against the Mail & Guardian.  The press corps is particularly sensitive about the promulgation of a new Secrecy Bill, which will gag press transparency.  The media have been pushing for a waiver of certain sections of the Secrecy Bill where information, which would be vitally in the public interest, could be exposed.  Government have no intention of brooking such loopholes, spreading the fear that press freedom will likely be suppressed as a result, a sure sign that the political elite are hedging against their past and future corruption or incompetence.


Coming back to Zimbabwe, the conflict between press exposé and an autocratic regime has been long standing, if not outrageously obvious.  Clearly, old habits die hard.  The more recent transgression against freedom involved a weekly newspaper, The Standard.  They had the apparent audacity to publish an article concerning the likely demise of a floundering, but allegedly partisan or ‘connected’ medical aid society.  No sooner had the piece been published, in rushed the ‘storm troopers’ to secure evidence and arrest those who dared to expose the truth.  Unlike the South African breaking issue, there was no subtlety in Zimbabwe’s purge. Two journalists suffered the indignity of detention in filthy police cells for their efforts.

This is not new in Zimbabwe.  The nation is on record for being one of the worst places in the world, at one stage, for journalists to practice their craft.  There are many reported incidences of journalists suffered brutal torture at the hands of the regime, previously in full power.  At least 15 journalists have been victims of arrest, attack and intimidation during the last six months alone according to the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ).   The dominant party, which has ruled with iron fist over the last three decades, has wilfully suppressed the private press and nurtured its own puppet mouthpieces to generate its vitriol and garbage to the party faithful.  An echo of Hitler’s offering that ‘the people will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one’ would be apt.

The two initiatives smack of politically inspired press muzzling to protect the backs of those who have evidently transgressed the law or suffered bouts of incompetence.  This must, however, raise the motion that press ethics are being breached in their illicit solicitation of material, be this for the noble cause of creating transparency or simply to expose filth and corruption.  The conundrum here is which of the two evils is better: suppression of information exposing the truth about corrupt public officials and politicians; or the unethical collection, thievery or bribery by the media to tap such sensitive information?

The public has a right to know when those they have elected fall down the slippery slopes of turpitude or fail in their duties.  Does this, however, allow the press to breach the law, or indeed their ethics, to achieve an otherwise estimable purpose?  It would seem that while it is abundantly clear that the public need to know of, and the press has a duty to expose, corruption and incompetence, at the highest levels, this should not be tolerated if they have blood on their hands.   That would be tantamount to lowering themselves to levels of illicit activity conducted by state intelligence collection agencies, which we are all so quick to condemn.

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Southern Africa’s SADC Under the Spotlight

By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
The Southern African Development Community (SADC), comprising 15 member states, convenes an extraordinary summit in Sandton, South Africa on 11 June, principally to discuss the extension of free trade
between itself and larger counterparts, the East African Community (EAC) and the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA). On the sidelines of this conference, two of SADC’s reprobate siblings, Madagascar and Zimbabwe, will draw the greater media focus in the face new criticisms of SADC for its manifest apathy in dealing with regional crisis.

There are few parallels between Madagascar and Zimbabwe, and these are tenuous. The single common denominator bringing them to SADC’s tending are issues of governance and the right of their peoples to choose political leaders in free and fair elections, being devoid of violence and intimidation. Madagascar suffered a transfer of power to opposition leader, Andy Rajoelina, who headed up an imposed High Transitional Authority in what was tantamount to a military coup. Following lengthy negotiations, SADC recently bungled by approving a ‘road-map’ intended to return the nation to democracy, which the entire Madagascan opposition had instantly rejected. The people are not liberated.

Zimbabwe is the bigger headache for SADC. Surprisingly, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa demonstrated his increasing impatience with Zimbabwe’s failure to implement resolutions to save a shaky Global Political Agreement (GPA). Politically, Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity (GNU) is decaying. The problem is, nobody knows how genuine, or indeed impartial, Zuma is, especially behind closed doors. An apparent increase in levels of political violence and intimidation, ahead of elections, for which no date has even been set, the seeming militarization of politics by one contender party, and the polarization of the parties to the GPA are cause for concern. Yet SADC’s professed disquiet with Zimbabwe is not being matched with commensurate action or pressure. There is certainly no urgency and the people are not liberated.

This is, perhaps, not surprising. SADC has long been regarded as a toothless bulldog. It has unresolved issues concerning its ineffective secretariat, which lacks both political and administrative infusion from the club’s regional powerhouse, South Africa. Its objectives were once that of a political liberator in southern Africa. Added to this, the very concept that this old nationalist liberators’ club, might ever confront one of its own, indeed face up to Africa’s most upheld liberation revolutionary, showers water on fuming discontent in some parts of the region. Zuma’s ANC government, charged with structuring the election ‘road-map’ in Zimbabwe, is hardly likely tip the scales and topple a crony liberation party, thus exacerbating a rather disturbing trend.

Astonishingly, the Community has already suspended its SADC Tribunal, a regional law court, in the wake of its judgements made against the Zimbabwean government on land issues brought before it. The Tribunal had ruled that land reform in Zimbabwe was racist and illegal. Zimbabwe ignored the judgement and facilitated the suspension. Many are now crying foul. Their loss of recourse to regional law establishments, such as the SADC Tribunal, for protection against human rights abuses, leaves the victims of bad governance vulnerable to no justice or seeking refuge off-shore in foreign courts. This is a huge blow for democracy.

Now, opposition parties in Zimbabwe, which may well agree on an election road-map at the summit, still have serious contending issues. In particular, the essential need for security sector reform. Zimbabwe’s military and police service are considered to be fiercely loyal to Robert Mugabe and his former ruling party, which are clambering to retain power as Zimbabwe’s one and only liberator. Many believe the security forces are simply a party political militia, which cannot respect a constitution for all people. Clearly, without such reform, any election road-map will be critically damaged, before the first steps are taken.

SADC needs to take stock of its obligations to the people of southern Africa when faced with crisis in one nation or another. It needs to understand the requirement for impartiality and get over the liberation culture that appears to have ingratiated itself within. Southern Africa has golden opportunities at its doorstep, yet, like the rest of Africa, it seems destined for the slippery slope of internecine squabbles, economic demise and destruction in the deep waters of just too much politics. Without active and assertive regional leadership, empathy and simple common sense within SADC, North African styled revolutions may easily fester in the south.

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