One of my favorite Washington DC spots is the Newseum, a museum that focuses on how the freedoms of the first amendment to the US Constitution — particularly freedom of the press — are crucial to a well-functioning democracy. Every American should know the freedoms by heart: freedom of religion, freedom from the establishment of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and petition, and freedom of association.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the first amendment quite a bit recently, in light of the freedom of the media turmoil happening in South Africa. The Protection of Information Bill is currently being discussed and the usual arguments have surfaced – the right to know vs the protection of the country and its people. And, of course, that juxtaposition alone begs the question of a false dichotomy. From what I’ve read, the government says this bill is meant to protect certain information from destruction, loss, or unlawful disclosure and to regulate how information may be protected. And, it’s only the beginning. There are also many proposals within the ANC to create media tribunals to regulate the conduct of the media.
As a former journalist, I’m worried about these developments. The people have a right to know if their elected cabinet members are living lavishly while millions go without the new homes they were promised, for example. Democracy can’t live without a free press — as Nelson Mandela said in 1994 to the International Press Institute Congress: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference.”
As an MBA and a general believer in free market economics, I’m worried about these developments. At the moment, rumors about the mining industry aren’t worrying sovereign rating agencies about South Africa. But the Protection of Information Bill is raising concerns. Why? Because it allows the government to be less transparent, according to Moody’s in this BusinessDay article, and less transparency means a riskier business environment.
Yes, every government has its secrets. And sometimes, it needs to protect those secrets (although I also might argue that you’re generally only hiding something when you’ve done something bad). But, anyway, the fewer secrets you have, the easier it is to protect them well. This is a dangerous slope upon which the ANC is teetering, a slope that, by the way, worked quite in its favor internationally during apartheid and the fight to free Mandela. You can’t have it both ways.
A friend of mine has been working on a project through Football For Hope, the FIFA campaign from the 2010 World Cup. It’s called the Siyakhona Project, which means “we can” in Zulu and Xhosa. The idea is to train teenagers around the world to use digital cameras and video cameras to tell their story, to show them what it means to be a journalist. If a free press is the lifeblood to a democracy, then raising up a generation of critically thinking journalists is a pretty good use of time and money. Check out the videos and photos on the Siyakhona site and some below (yes, they were really taken by teenagers). And remember that the freedom to produce and share these works is something that needs to be protected and not taken for granted.