Action is all that matters as ‘1984’ looms

– Pieter-Dirk Uys,  Business Day, 21 October 2010

THIS week there is a special focus on the freedoms of the media in a democratic society, especially if those rights are being threatened. The successful result of the total onslaught against truth and opinion can be seen in the actions of the apartheid government this week in 1977, with the banning of newspapers and arrest of journalists and editors.

Today’s newspaper readers share their opinions. Some are critical of the freedoms enjoyed by the media. Some move to the internet. But the general comment is: I don’t want to be depressed. There is nothing I can do. I don’t think this is unique to the media. Theatre has the same problems.

Personally, if I have to look for criticisms of the media, they are small and mainly based on irritation: sensational headlines to attract attention that take the adult media down to the level of the Daily Voice and other rags; sloppy editing that takes the urgency and importance out of reporting.

All we can do is bring the issue to the public domain as clearly as possible. If the proposed laws controlling free speech become reality, we will be back in a time of thought-control and confusion. Under apartheid there was a moral high ground beyond the struggle. Today there is not. Then, while Nelson Mandela was locked away for 27 years, we were not allowed to see his picture, hear his voice, discuss his case. Today, too many people feel a sense of relief to be spared the need to form an opinion. The right to know is as important as the right to life.

Black Wednesday in 1977 was no different to a Black Tuesday or a Black Thursday. Then black people died and all South African children were being lobotomised by the acid of apartheid propaganda. On that fateful Wednesday, October 19 1977, newspapers were banned. Some people sat up and took notice, which underlines the visibility of the media and the hope that an injury to them is an injury to society.

However, let us not drag in old blueprints of the struggle. Whatever action from the government against free speech lies ahead will not be neutralised by what actions succeeded then. Banning the media is a T- shirt slogan. It cannot work in 2010. With the internet and mass communication available, nothing can be hidden.

The media must find ways to take the high ground and attract young readers. They are the issue here. Without their support and interest, our future Black Friday (or whenever the iron fist comes down) will just slide into the files as just another hiccup that changed nothing.

Protest without an audience is pointless. Protest theatre during apartheid made its point within a minute and then filled the next hour with propaganda. Any protest today must be entertaining enough to attract the attention of the majority, who usually just sigh and turn the page.

Reinvent. Use humour. Offend. Maybe even loudly welcome all those proposed Draconian laws, so that the media can once again go underground and bring a rotten government to book. That will surprise enough people to take notice and maybe care.

An array of notable signatures has been collected to protest against the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and Protection of Information Bill. How many of us who signed are prepared to lose our lives to protect our freedoms? Action is all that matters.

So let us act: let us keep writing. Finding the targets and the truth. Respecting our standards and our intentions. Surprising our readers with new ways to illuminate old evils. Sensationalism deadens response.

But let us not fall into a trap here. It is possible that all the threats and innuendo are a successful diversion from the real issue. We are losing our democracy to mediocrity, lies and fear. The tripartite alliance is falling apart. The opposition is divided. The nation is suspicious and tired of being shocked by bad leadership. Half our population is poor, the rest are half-educated and know their dreams can’ t come true.

This all happened in Germany during the celebrated Weimar Republic. It imploded very quickly, opening the space for the Third Reich. If we laugh at Julius Malema’s Double-G in woodwork, remember Adolf Hitler had a Double-G in Art! George Orwell’s 1984 can still happen here next year. And so can Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

It’s one minute to midnight….




articles from 2010