Press Freedom and Human Rights Day

20 Mar 2019
Press Freedom and Human Rights Day

By Rowan Morar & Nokukhanya Mncwabe

According to the Freedom House 2019 Freedom in the World Report, South Africa ranks among the global leaders with respect to Press and Internet Freedom.  While the metrics of many countries indicate regression in these domains,  South Africa has maintained and in some instances improved its already high ranking.

Notwithstanding this,  however,  several key concerns motivate for continued vigilance:  South Africans should be especially concerned about increasing authoritarian and non-democratic controls of the internet, particularly as the internet has become the dominant source of media access and consumption.

The Global Decline of Free Press

Freedom House uses legal, political and economic metrics to measure among other things the constitutional protections for press freedom and the extent of “extralegal intimidation or violence” by state and other actors.  Press Freedom,  derived from article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides for freedom of opinion and expression. The Freedom House report indicates that there has been a global decline in press freedom and a deterioration in conditions conducive to the enjoyment of freedom of opinion and expression.

This is attributable to several factors: consider for example China and Russia ’s increasingly authoritarian attitudes to the media; US President Trump’s public attacks on the press; the popularisation of the term “Fake News” – all of which exacerbate suspicion and hostility towards media outlets, undermining press freedom.

The idea that mainstream media propagates partisan political content is not new, though “propaganda” is no longer a widely circulated term. Journalists have increasingly come under fire for “Fake News”, which often translates as critique unfavourable to the party in question.

The question of what counts as bona fide journalism –  or meets the definition of “Real News” – was brought to the foreign an interview of political party leader, Julius Malema,  who sought to justify the threats levelled by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)  against journalist, Karima Brown.  Malema denounced threats of violence against any individual, whilst simultaneously asserting that because Brown is not a bona fide journalist, the EFF was well within its rights and moral standing to “expose” her details. The implication of this is that only credentialed journalists are exempt from public exposure and the average citizen is not free to investigate political parties. Malema ’s rationale appears to be that his suspicion (not knowledge, by his own careful wording) that Karima Brown is a state spy tasked with destabilising the EFF constitutes sufficient justification for her intimidation and harassment. The framing of Brown’s professional endeavours  – and by extension those of the average citizen – as subterfuge and espionage is intended to call into question and disparage any assertions critical of the EFF placed on the public record.

Media mischief is not the sole purview of the EFF –  the African National Congress (ANC) has repeatedly been accused of leveraging the state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) for partisan ends. However, the intimation that citizens are not free to express their opinion without threats of violence and the suggestion that it is political leaders who have the discretion to determine who counts as a legitimate journalist is alarming. Particularly as the soon-to-be-adopted Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill does not define who or what constitutes a bona fide journalist or reporter (see Professor Pierre de Vos’ commentary); the impact of this Bill on the legal dimensions of press freedom thus remains to be seen.

Transparency and State-Corporate Partnerships

States across the globe have increased their suppression of dissent, enabled in large part by digital surveillance often facilitated by state-corporation exchanges.  Although by global comparison the South African state remains committed to Freedom of the Internet and Press,  it has participated in Chinese state-sponsored training programmes  for foreign entities on  models of surveillance and censorship euphemistically termed “information management.” Bilateral state co-operation exists alongside public-private ventures:  Media Sonar is a software programme that bolsters the South African states’ geolocation capabilities, effective data collection and image recognition software, among other features.

It has enabled law enforcement to target #BlackLivesMatters protesters in California and other organisations that pose “threats to public safety,”  through the purchasing or acquisition of personal data from social media and third-party entities for surveillance purposes. Although this has a dystopian and conspiratorial sensibility, it is becoming an increasingly common security practice; and while there are undoubtedly legitimate threats to security, both locally and globally, there is a need to ensure that is responsibly and accountably used to avoid the co-option of such tools as measures of state suppression.  Partnerships of this nature should therefore  be transparent and subject to checks and balances, lest they devolve into Apartheid-styled surveillance tools for the 21st Century.

“Fake News”

South Africa’s relatively robust press freedom must be considered within a context of global decline. “Fake news” has become a strong-armed legal and political tactic to silence dissent. In America, Trump’s use of “Fake News” is now a global meme attacking the institution of journalism generally. Across the anglophone world, the rise of populism in Europe has experienced a devolution of discourse and trust in the public sphere usually reserved for criticism of its Chinese and Russian competitors. This problem is amplified in areas of the globe already struggling with authoritarian rule.

In Venezuela, for instance, Maduro’s government passed a “vaguely written law” criminalising online “hatred” with severe penalties, effectively targeted at political opponents (Freedom House, Freedom on the Net: 4). The accusations of “Fake News”, as well as legal and extra-legal methods of censorship and surveillance tend to increase as elections approach. The combination of “fake news” accusations circulating in our public sphere, loose definitions around “hate”, “harm” and “reporting” in the upcoming Hate Speech and Hate Crimes Bill, as well as the importation of authoritarian surveillance models requires our vigilance.

Facebook Politics

Our data could be used, in the least sinister cases, for targeted political marketing.  Our psycho-social profiles are amassed on the basis of searches, posts, purchases and media consumption. Major platforms, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, curate our information, which companies such as Media Sonar acquire and sell on to states.

While Facebook is reassessing its practices, this is a live and ongoing problem. Facebook’s removal of Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov’s Facebook profile was reasonable; however, it was motivated by the U.S. government’s threat to fine the social media company for its failure to sanction Kadyrov given his placement on the U.S. Sanctions List for alleged human rights violations.  Facebook has not, however, been consistent: there are other leaders on the U.S. Sanction List whom the company has not removed or banned.   The concern here is that private entities are arbitrarily surveying and censoring users, co-operation with states where there is either a profit motive or strong incentive (for example averting a fine). Google has similarly come under fire for steering searches towards popular, as opposed to quality, news media (Newman: 7).

The problem of arbitrary powers of censorship and the privilege afforded to dubious but spectacular news sources to drive profits from advertisement raises legitimate concerns about the manner in which our news is curated. It becomes untenable or even impossible to achieve fair and balanced reporting if news is curated to meet the requirements of advertising revenue as opposed to adherence to journalistic ethical standards. There is a clear conflict of interest between quality journalism and news that sells. This is nothing new in media. It is, however, intensified as power for censorship and archival oversight is concentrated into singularly large entities such as Facebook and Google, whose archival practices are opaque and unaccountable. While platforms such as Twitter have demonstrated a commitment to combating use of their data for surveillance, the threat of such surveillance still remains.

Importing Chinese Models of “Internet Management”

Russian and Chinese surveillance and monitoring systems and models of “internet management” are clearly used to suppress dissidents. These modalities are also increasingly exported globally. The Chinese State has multiple legal codes that prohibit and intimidate criticism of the state. While many countries do not have this level of legal prohibition, they are beginning to adopt the technical aspects of Chinese digital surveillance, if not censorship (Freedom House: 6-10). The South African state has both infrastructural ties to China and has sent civil servants for training in their monitoring models (Freedom House: 9). These trends need to be monitored going forward. The Bell Pottinger and Cambridge Analytica scandals clearly illustrate Apartheid and Cold War era propaganda wars are ongoing and the tactics used by states and companies to target audiences for political manipulation are global problems.

Economic Barriers to Access

Economic access is a key challenge confronting our local press.  Firstly, a substantial proportion of our independent news isn’t accessible to or accessed by most citizens. The Mail & Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Daily Maverick, for instance, regularly engage in robust critiques of the state. However, their audience is the demographic of South Africans who are overwhelmingly relatively affluent; whereas,  the SABC holds a monopoly on a larger proportion of the market. The SABC has been subject to routine allegations of partisanship, most notably leading up to the 2016 elections and suppression of coverage of service delivery protests across the country in 2016. The connection between the SABC and the ruling party must be continually monitored.

Nonetheless, independent journalism needs to be made widely available. The Daily Maverick has a useful model of soliciting support from readers whilst still providing access to articles, which doesn’t lock independent journalism behind a paywall. However, while many major news outlets have adopted this model globally, the effects of the shift from advertisement funding to supporter driven revenue remain to be seen.

Local TV and radio news broadcasters offer a source of community-driven coverage; however, their funding support has waned over the years.  Identifying measures to ensure the sustainability of community-driven journalism is a worthwhile challenge,  particularly as this medium us well-placed to draw public attention to vested interests in municipal level issues.

What should we do?

Digital Media and Social Media dissolve the traditional barriers to entry for civil activism and state critique, giving voice to all interested and concerned parties.  In the run-up to national elections – and of course beyond –  efforts should be made to measure the states’ legal and political commitment to press and internet freedom.

The right to freedom of expression requires consistent and vigilant defence, as current events attest –  from the outright hostility to media critique expressed by prominent political figures  (former President Zuma and EFF leader, Malema are cases in point) to the arbitrary distinction between legitimate press and reporting and the upcoming Hate Speech and Hate Crimes Bill’s potentially excessive ambit given its broad definition of “harm” and “reporting,” which may circumscribes the ability to report on hate crimes or hate speech in some instance altogether.

This potentially radical democratic power ironically concentrates the power of state surveillance.  It is for this reason that we should keenly monitor the South African governments’ co-operative agreements (for example with China) and ventures with corporate security firms and their respective uses of our social media data going forward. Additionally, partnerships between civil society and private media companies on fact-checking will be useful, as well as updates on methods of disinformation and the psychological drivers spreading it. Our companies should also be as clear and transparent with their moderation, surveillance and censorship practices as possible. Additionally, funding for local coverage and independent journalism should be encouraged to promote free and independent media agencies.

It is also important to pay personal attention to how we search, post, read and disseminate information. We cannot abdicate or defer wholesale the responsibility to address surveillance or internet freedom problems. We should monitor our civil, state and commercial institutions within the context of the global climate, and remain vigilant to retain our free media landscape.

Image: Glen Carrie on Unsplash