Menell13: Media freedom unpacked

[Photographs by Nokuthula Manyathi]

Some of the most influential South African journalists gathered at the Sol Kerzner auditorium at the University of Johannesburg on Saturday, to discuss various topics under the media freedom umbrella. The topics ranged from government propaganda to secrecy laws and beyond.

Inside the belly of the beast

Keynote speaker and host of Faultlines on Al Jazeera, Josh Rushing spoke candidly about being a marine and a journalist.

“I was inside Al Jazeera, inside the military and inside the Bush administration – I had a unique vantage point,” said Rushing.

In 2003, Rushing was with Central Command and tasked with speaking to the media about the invasion in Iraq. A controversial documentary, Control Room, showed Rushing speaking about the invasion. The Pentagon muzzled his attempts to speak about the documentary, so he resigned after 14 years of service.

It was at this point that Rushing helped to start up Al Jazeera English. Rushing explained that Al Jazeera had always been vilified as being the mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda and he resigned so he could speak about what it wasn’t.

Power corrupts

Rushing said that the Obama administration is possibly the least transparent and most aggressive towards the media. “When he (Obama) was a senator, he championed media freedom,” lamented Rushing.

He explained that the U.S Espionage Act of 1917 has been used seven times under Obama’s watch. Rushing said that even though President Obama may have good intentions: “All power leads to abuse at some point.”

He touched on data mining and how companies like Apple and Google are colluding with the current administration to store people’s data.

Secrecy laws back home

A panel consisting of Nic Dawes, William Bird and Ylva Rodney-Gumede spoke about secrecy laws and how they would possibly affect journalism in South Africa. [pullquote]“People can classify information that should not be classified in the first place”[/pullquote]

Dawes explained that the amendments that had been to the Protection of State Information Bill since its inception were great, but didn’t cure the concerns he had with the bill. But was happy that: “We’ve made freedom of information a broad public debate,” he said.

Bird was less optimistic and bluntly said the bill as it stood was “evil, old apartheid stuff”. He said the fact that people’s travel schedules could be classified was a problem, when someone like President Obama’s schedule is available online for the world to see.

“People can classify information that should not be classified in the first place,” bemoaned Bird.

Mzilikazi wa Afrika said that the bill would be problematic for journalists. He highlighted the contradictory message being sent by government.

“On one hand they have hotlines for people to call in and report corruption and other such crimes and on the other they are saying if you blow the whistle, we will send you to jail,” he said.

Media attorney and moderator of the panel, Dario Milo jokingly said he calls it the “some Secrecy Bill”, after the amendments that have been made. To which Rodney-Gumede replied, “great the SS Bill”.

Public Protector

“Journalism allows people to have oversight over the people they have entrusted with power,” said public protector, advocate Thuli Mandonsela.

She also highlighted the parallels between her office and investigative journalism, namely the investigative aspect and the role they play in strengthening our democracy.

The role of investigative journalism

Adriaan Basson, deputy editor of the City Press said that the success of investigative journalism cannot be measured against prosecutions. “What happens after investigations is not our job,” said Basson.

He went on to list three ways in which investigative journalism could be improved. Firstly, the stories of the victims of corruption need to be told. The impact of corruption needs to be highlighted to empower people. “It’s not about us, it’s about them,” said Basson.

Secondly journalists need to experiment with new technologies and data journalism to make their stories appeal to people. Lastly, “Get off twitter and get into the Corolla,” said Basson.

Mzilikazi wa Afrika of the Sunday Times agreed with Basson and explained how he had found two of his award winning stories by way of not sitting behind his desk waiting for news.

Piet Rampedi of The Star said that threats and intimidation from the top are the price you pay “if you dare to do investigative journalism”.

Investigative journalism isn’t a special category, “just great journalism” expressed an audience member.

Dodge propaganda and spin

Justice Malala, host of The Justice Factor on eNCA spoke about the media “falling” for government propaganda and government spin doctors. [pullquote align=”right”] “For four years we ran after the theatrics of politics and ignored the important things,”[/pullquote]

Malala spoke out against the way the media is easily distracted and gave the example of Julius Malema. “For four years we ran after the theatrics of politics and ignored the important things,” he said.

He expressed the need for journalists and the media to start talking about institutions as opposed to speaking about isolated incidents, incidents that people often forget about. “We forget sometimes, I also forget and go with the noise,” added Malala.

Senior researcher at Wits Journalism and panelist, Glenda Daniels disagreed with Malala and said that the media doesn’t just fall for spin and that there is a lot of continuity in media stories, giving the example of the Gupta scandal.


Make law not love

THE TWITTER sphere has been running amok with explicit sexual content from South Africa, inviting questions about the legality of sexy social media.


Recent Sex scandals on social media

Recently, South African twitter was abuzz after a man leaked nude photos of a woman, allegedly his ex-girlfriend, because he was in “a fit of rage” after they broke up.

The woman’s pictures were then retweeted and shared across twitter to the point where #nudes was trending in South Africa.

Closer to home was the “Wits Sex tape”, which was uploaded onto a blog and shared by many on campus and around the country. The tape trended for 72 hours and people were still asking for links to it even though the blog had already been deleted.

At Rhodes, a “Gossip Girl” account tweeted a picture of a man and a woman naked in a university dorm room and in a sexual position. Tweeters such as Michelle Solomon (@mishsomolon) called for the account to be reported for sharing explicit content.

The Rhodes University alumni account (@RhodesAlumni) tweeted that what the account was doing was illegal and that the account should be closed. The account was shut down soon afterwards.

However, while the twitter sphere enjoys posting and sharing illicit sex tapes and nude photos, the repercussions for doing so, for both the original posters and those who retweet, can be severe.


Legal implications of distributing sexual content [pullquote align=”right”]”The crimen injuria route would mean that the person who has distributed private content unlawfully could serve jail time.”[/pullquote]

According to media law expert Dario Milo, if the person depicted has not given consent for a sex tape or nude photo to be distributed then they have legal recourse.

Milo said those who had made sex tapes or nude photos but had them published without their consent have three legal routes they may follow.

A person can sue for invasion of privacy and have a court interdict to have the content removed.

A person can sue for damages if publication causes them to lose their job or if it results in their reputation being damaged.

The third legal route is to make a complaint of “crimen injuria”, unlawfully and intentionally impairing the dignity or privacy of another person,” to the police.

The crimen injuria route would mean that the person who has distributed private content unlawfully could serve jail time.


Even retweets can get you arrested

Milo said those who shared or retweeted the content were also not on safe legal ground and could be held liable along with the person who originally posted the content without consent.

He said it was important that people realised that even if both parties had consented to making a sex tape or taking nude photos, that does not mean they consented to its distribution.

“Consent for one purpose does not mean consent for another purpose,” said Milo.

The moral of the story is, think twice before posting that naked picture or sex tape of that ex-lover you are angry with.