Due to the furore over the recent announcement of bills that the South African government are planning on passing, namely the Information Protection Act, the Media Appeals Tribunal Bill; and the Public Broadcaster Act, our President Jacob Zuma has come out in strong defence of these bills and has called for a media debate. I read an article online where his statements were quoted and as I do not have access to our esteemed leader, I have chosen to write him an “open” letter stating my concerns. Dear President Zuma I am a voting, tax paying citizen of South Africa, who has recently read up on your comments about the proposed bills, in particular the Media Appeals Tribunal Bill. And as a citizen of a democratic state, I would like to voice my opinion with regards to some of your statements. Mr Zuma, I agree with you that print media cannot be viewed as being above the law and the Constitution in particular, and this is why the Press Ombudsman was implemented. I am not quite clear as to why this Institution that is deemed sufficient for all other countries; is not considered effective with regards to the press in South Africa. If there are deemed inefficiencies within this structure, would it not be easier and more cost effective to fix the problem within this institution, instead of spending precious state funds on building another institution? I say precious, Mr Zuma, because in a country where there are people who are homeless; do not have access to clean, running water; do not have access to high quality levels of education; do not have electricity; do not have access to health facilities; food; money and safety; then any state funds raised should be directed towards eradicating these social ills first, before addressing other elements of the Constitution. Which brings me to my next point, Mr Zuma, you stated that no right in the Bill of Rights is absolute, but I am afraid that you are wrong. The right to life is absolute Mr Zuma, and hence we cannot have a death penalty in this country. The right to Human Dignity is also absolute. There are also several other sections of the Bill which are non-derogable, as stated in a table on page 21 of The Constitution. I point this out because it worries me that our state’s leader could make such a blanket statement as if he was not fully aware of the contents of our most important bill. So, yes Mr Zuma, Freedom of Expression is not absolute, however per The Constitution, when interpreting the Bill of Rights, one must promote the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom. One must also consider international law and may consider foreign law. So when I read section 16 of the Constitution where it states that everyone has a right to freedom of expression which includes the freedom of the press and other media; and the freedom to receive and impart information or ideas as long as they do not incite violence or hatred or are not a form of propaganda, it makes me wonder why the three proposed bills have even been considered. Democracy is a difficult idea to maintain, because the very idea of democracy is that everyone’s opinions matter. So when someone states something that I do not agree with, or find offensive, I cannot tell them that they are wrong because they have a right to that opinion. In the same way, when the media reports on the things that government officials have done or other citizens of this country, it is because it is their right to do so, whether everyone agrees with them or not. Of course if such publications have been fabricated; are considered to be defamatory or are deemed to be unconstitutional, then that is a different story. But again that is why the Press Ombudsman was put into place, to address any deviances from The Constitution as well as any other laws that the media are required to adhere to. The recent court ruling against the City Press with regards to an article published by them is a case in point that the Ombudsman is not inept at its duties. Mr Zuma, you stated that the real debate should be whether the media is playing a constructive role in society and whether they represent what the majority of South Africans feel. You gave an example of the World Cup nay saying. Well, you are right, there were people in the media who were negative about the World Cup’s prospects, but there were also people who were positive. And so whilst the majority of the nation felt national pride during and leading up to the world cup, there were Nay Sayers amongst our citizens. Again, whilst, when it comes to the electoral system majority rules, one must not forget that even the minorities’ voices must be heard. If this was not the case, then the ANC would be the only party represented in Parliament. So, while media must reflect what the majority feel or think, they must also reflect the opinions of the minority. Because our country is not made up of 51% it is made up of 100%, whether we voted or not, we all have rights that must be upheld. Mr Zuma, the government was elected by the people and to the people must give account. The media not only represents ordinary citizens, but the people who work in the media are also the very same citizens who have the right to question government and its performance, because we are the shareholders of government and we require a return on our investment. We have the right to know how state funds are budgeted and spent; and to be given explanations for any variances. We have the right to know if people are not happy with service delivery or if government officials are living above their means or if government officials are not following the appropriate rules and regulations when procuring or hiring or performing their duties. The media represents our interests by questioning you, our employees, because while you are the CEO of South Africa, we are the shareholders who put you there and can remove you if you are found wanting. Yes, the media is a business that needs to make money and yes, there are instances when exaggerations and misstatements occur, but again this is why the Press Ombudsman was set in place, because people had the foresight to know that humans are not perfect and may need to be regulated from time to time. I understand the noble reasons for wanting to pass these bills, however I wonder why such bills are deemed necessary in light of our Constitution. If one feels that they are being unfairly targeted by the media, then one should take it up with the courts. Our courts have proven to be fair and just with regards to the evidence presented, as you Mr Zuma are well aware of from your own personal experiences, so why can we not trust that ‘vehicle’ any longer? Mr Zuma, we are not saying that the ANC has no ethics or morals, but history shows that if given too much power to control, that liberation heroes are often turned into totalitarian villains. Let us not become another African state that is a failed democracy. Let us be the beacon that continues to lead Africa forward and upwards. Let us correct the fundamental things that are wrong in this country, which directly affects the majority of this country’s population and instead of overhauling areas that are not derelict, use the tools that are already in place to fix any problems. I want to see a return on my investment in the form of a significant increase in the literacy rates, housing for all, healthy food and clean water for all, adequate and effective health services for all, significant increases in job employment figures, and the strengthening of our economy. Would this not be a more positive way to keep the Nay Sayers in media quiet? I think so and I know I am not the only one who does. I understand that this was a resolution passed at an ANC conference; however the registered number of ANC members does not represent the majority of South Africa’s population (49 million). And while the majority of registered voters (11, 6 million) voted in favour of the ANC, they voted for the ANC not because of these proposed bills, but because of the ANC’s campaign which promised increases in employment, housing and access to improved services. And so one wonders, if every time our government wants to pass a bill or make a decision, and quotes that it is ANC policy, thereby representing only 24% of the country’s population, who will represent the remaining 76%? I trust that my opinion shall be taken in due consideration, as a valued shareholder in our State’s affairs. Kind regards, Charlotte B Luzuka
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