Without a free media there can be no freedom

On October 19 1977 – also known as Black Wednesday – this country, under the apartheid rule, knew nothing about the words of section 16 of the Bill of Rights embedded in the constitution, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression”, and so publications such as The World and organisations were silenced.

But the oppressive regime had no idea of such an animal: freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive and to impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; academic freedom and freedom of scientific research; etc.

To suppress its political opponents, many of whom were black people, the illegitimate government used sledgehammer tactics and devious legislation such as section 10 of the Internal Security Act to bludgeon into submission all political activities contrary to the status quo’s whims and wishes.

And so, when Percy Qoboza, then editor of the black-oriented daily, The World, decided he would no longer in his publication place too much emphasis on sports, crime, sex and tokoloshe stories but would focus more closely on news that depicted the suffering of black people, and the injustices heaped on them by the unjust government of the day, the regime pounced, using draconian laws to suppress dissent – and banned The World and others.

The church publication, Pro Veritate, edited by anti-apartheid Beyers Naude, would, on the same day suffer the same fate as The World, including 19 black consciousness organisations, comprising the Black People’s Convention, the SA Student’s Organisation (Saso), Union of Black Journalists (UBJ), Black Community Programmes and the Zimele Trust Fund, among others.

The system, as the apartheid rule was known then, routinely, during that period, detained or banned journalists among whom were Joe Thloloe, Don Mattera, Aggrey Klaaste and Mathatha Tsedu.

Phil Mtimkulu, who later became an academic in the department of political science at Unisa, joined the list of several journalists who were banned alongside Zwelakhe Sisulu, Mono Badela, Subrey Govender and Charles Nqakula, prominent leaders of the Media Workers Association of South Africa (Mwasa).

Nqakula would later become a leading light of the SA Communist Party, and a cabinet minister for several years.

The advent of democracy in 1994 after a long struggle, well described in former president Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, was to mark a new path to the reconstruction of a new nation committed to justice and freedom.

Sadly, the path has been marked by failures and missteps incongruent with the ideals of what democracy ought to look like – a system of governance that
delivers dividends of what a better life might mean for the citizenry – free of corruption and injustice.

Qoboza and his comrades set the tone 46 years earlier in 1977 on how it would feel to live in an open democratic society, where all freedoms, as envisaged by the Bill of Rights in section 12(1) of the constitution, would be realisable and become an ideal of the world we wish for.

Freedoms are indivisible.


Where there is freedom of the media there also must be freedom and security of persons, where we understand that our freedoms will not arbitrarily be
taken away from us without a just cause – a world where all will be free from all forms of violence.

This week on Thursday South Africans ought to look back and reflect on how our country would look like today had all those struggles not been undertaken – in the main to entrench the freedom of the media.

We owe a debt of gratitude to stalwarts such as Qoboza, Klaaste, Mattera, Thloloe, Nqakula, Tsedu, Sisulu, Thami Mazwai, Mthimkhulu, and many more, for the freedoms we today enjoy.

The wanton violence we see in our country tells us something fundamental – that those who run this country are not paying close attention to issues of protecting the citizenry from violence as dictated by the constitution – the security of the person.

The nation feels let down by the inept police service that has neglected the people to fall victims to marauding criminals.

In the final analysis, when the constitution tells us we have the right to express ourselves freely with no fear of being locked up, it tells us by implication that we ought to walk the streets of this land free of fear of being harmed by criminals.

  • Mdhlela is a freelance journalist, an Anglican priest, ex-trade unionist and former editor of the SA Human Rights Commission journals.

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