In the two countries I call home, there are events unfolding today which highlight the complex minefield of freedom of speech and censorship of the press. Today in the UK, the Leveson Enquiry is hearing evidence from a range of people who have suffered as a result of phone-hacking and other illegal news-gathering techniques. And on the other side of the world in South Africa, the government is almost certain to pass into law a Protection of Information Bill, which will grant them wide-ranging powers to prevent the spread of information that the government deems “not in the public interest”.
What does that mean? Well, I went looking for the text of the bill, and this is what it says. “Not in the public interest” would include information in the “National Interest of the Republic”, and “Commercial Information”. To quote from the act:
“The national interest of the Republic includes, but is not limited to--
(a) all matters relating to the advancement of the public good; and
(b) all matters relating to the protection and preservation of all things owned or maintained for the public by the State”
Well, if that isn’t worryingly broad and open to all sorts of interpretation, I don’t know what is.
and “Commercial Information” includes:
(a) Commercial information of an organ of state or information which has been given by an organisation, ﬁrm or individual to an organ of state or an official representing the State, on request or invitation or in terms of a statutory or regulatory provision, the disclosure of which would prejudice the commercial, business, ﬁnancial or industrial interests of the organ of state, organisation or individual concerned;
So, theoretically, if a politician has taken a kickback, for granting a tender, for example, and have to disclose it legally, it can be kept out of the press, because it would prejudice his interests.
If you’d like to look at the act in full, you can find it here.
But do the South Africa government have a point? After all, the Leveson enquiry is sitting because the press in this country has done so much damage. It’s a no-brainer that hacking someone’s phone to gather information is both immoral and illegal. But the super-injunction thing is a thornier issue. Is it genuinely in the public interest to know that a premiership footballer can’t keep it in his pants? We can to and fro for hours on the ethics of revealing the details of the life of a private individual, and there is no doubt that sectors of the British press have behaved with a show of utter moral bankruptcy where certain individuals (notably the victims of crime and their families) have been concerned. My own opinion is that, broadly speaking and with the obvious exceptions mentioned above, an individual who has metaphorically and literally kept his or her trousers zipped has nothing to fear from a well-regulated free press.
When it comes to companies, organisations or governments, I feel we need to be much more hardcore. In 2009, a multinational company called Trafigura sought and was granted an injunction against the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian wished to expose the fact that Trafigura has illegally dumped highly toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire, leading to 15 deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses. Trafigura also tried to gag the BBC and to alter an article on Dutch Wikipedia about the ship that did the dumping. What the company did was heinous, and their attempts to conceal it were even more appalling. Leaving aside the environmental evil and abuse of human rights, as a public company, Trafigura had a duty of care to its employees, directors and shareholders not to behave in such a disgraceful way.
And this is my point with regard to governments. Like it or not, Members of Parliament both here and in South Africa, you work for us. We hired you, we pay your salaries, and in everything you do, you are accountable to us. Think of a free press as that annoying lady from accounts who meets us, your boss, in the kitchen and tells us you got in to work late and smelling of rum and then fiddled your expenses. If you clocked in on time and sober, you have nothing to fear. But if you’re pissed and late with your hand in the till, you deserve to get your arse kicked, and you will.
The laughable thing, of course, is that muzzling the press is almost useless in the age of the Internet. The Trafigura injunction was overturned within days because the Internet was full of speculation, and then whistle-blowing. And unless South Africa comes over all Chinese and starts restricting access to the Net, the same will happen there. Thinking, educated South Africans with broadband connections will have access to unrestricted news via international journalists, bloggers, tweeters and more. It will only be the poorer South Africans who rely on TV, radio and newspapers who will have their access to information compromised. It’s a whole new form of apartheid.
I am a South African and I love South Africa. I left eleven years ago to come and live in London, but I did not leave because I opposed the government, or even because of the crime rate. I left because I got a great work opportunity and because I wanted a chance to live and work in a country with many more creative opportunities, and because I wanted to give my son the widest possible range of choices for his future. I always hoped that the South Africa we saw born in 1994 would grow into the astonishing country it could be. I hoped that it would become such a vibrant, exciting, cultural place that we would want to come back because there were more opportunities than there were in London. In many ways it has, but in ways that matter deeply, today is the day I know I cannot call it home anymore.
South Africans are calling today Black Tuesday, in memory of the Black Wednesday in 1977 when, following the murder of Steve Biko, the apartheid government banned black consciousness organisations and muzzled the press. I know that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history, but this is the first time I have seen it happen within my own lifetime, and my heart
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.