Closure of any media outlet is no reason to rejoice

As South Africa transitioned from apartheid repression to a democracy in the early 1990s, I ventured from working at alternative, anti-apartheid newspapers to working at the then mainly white mainstream newspaper, the Sunday Times.

I figured that papers like the Sunday Times would have to transform with our democracy.

My first editor was Tertius Myburgh, who was close to the National Party, but he was replaced, soon after I arrived, by Ken Owen, an old-fashioned liberal who was rather different from Myburgh.

I became an assistant editor of the Sunday Times under Owen and he became one of my mentors in journalism despite our different political persuasions. Owen taught me about the liberal notion of “while I might disagree with you, I will fight to the death for your right to express your views”.

Owen was one of the best-read columnists in the country. He was respected for his views by many people in the ANC and the United Democratic Front, even though most of them disagreed with him most of the time.

I thought a lot about Owen this week and how true liberals like him have all but disappeared in South Africa. The people who profess to be upholding liberalism are too consumed by populism and are easily distracted by whatever the ruling ANC does.

Many of these modern-day supposed liberals were happy this week when MultiChoice, which has a monopoly on pay TV in South Africa through their ownership of DStv, decided they would not renew their contract with ANN7 when it expires in August. The result is that ANN7 will no longer have a platform, potentially leading to the closure of the station and the retrenchment of its staff members, said to be about 500.

The reasons for the happiness at the station’s demise are because it was started by the Gupta family and has mostly taken a very different position to most of the media in South Africa.

Some people in the media have even called them propagandists. The reason most media are not seen as propagandists is because their views correspond with the pre-dominant views in society.

But most media propagate a viewpoint. I have always maintained it is impossible for media to be objective, because all of us have political, social, economic and historical baggage which informs the way we report. The best we can try to do is to be fair.

But I also believe that, if certain views exist in our society, then it is important for us to know about them. Suppressing views will not make them go away. In many ways, they make the people who hold those views more committed to them.

During the struggle against apartheid, I worked for several anti-apartheid newspapers which often got banned, and journalists banned or detained. But the attempts to repress our views just made us more determined and, in some ways, convinced us we were right. I know things were different then, but it is strange that, in the democracy that so many of us fought for, people can applaud the decision to silence a media outlet which holds a divergent viewpoint.

During apartheid, we drew strength from the support of those who had different views but who supported our right to exist.

I hold no brief for the Guptas, even though I worked for them briefly a few years ago. I have been highly critical of the Guptas when they deserved criticism, which was probably most of the time.

However, I will never deprive them or anyone else, of their right to invest in media. As I said at the Cape Town Press Club in 2012, when I was editor of The New Age, there is no such thing as a perfect media owner and, as journalists, we must produce excellent media products despite and not because of our owners.

I refused to use The New Age to fight the Guptas’ battles. Obviously, the people at ANN7 - which was started after I left The New Age - have a different view and have been actively promoting factions that are aligned to President Jacob Zuma, who has always been seen to be close to the Guptas.

But that is no reason to close them down or to rejoice at their closure. People who rejoice at the closure of any media outlet - especially people in the media industry - need to reflect on what this means for democracy. Any voice that is silenced is bad for democracy.

We need to remind ourselves of the famous words by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller who did not speak out when they came for the socialists, the trade unionists or the Jews, because he was not one. Until they came for him and there was no one left to speak for him.

I’m sorry, I cannot gloat at ANN7’s demise, even if I am tempted to.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 3 February 2018)