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What the POI Bill says about the gradual erosion of our democracy

Date posted: November 24, 2011

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The Protection of Information Bill has just been steamrolled through and rubber-stamped by Parliament – a body tasked with balancing the demands of the executive with the best interests of their constituents – something it has consistently failed to do. In favour – and seeking the favour of – the executive.

For me, this is really the debate civil society should be having – how some of the institutions set up to protect the democratic system we value so highly have failed in their task – while others are gradually being diminished in a war of attrition that will see the executive emerge as more powerful than our constitution allows or public will favours.

The proportional representation voting system the country adopted with the advent of liberation from apartheid effectively removed public representatives from their constituencies – members of parliament (MPs) get picked off electoral lists rather than being elected directly. It means our MPs are less engaged with their constituents and less reliant on serving them to get re-elected. Their sole aim seems to stay as high up on electoral lists as possible, and to do so, of course, you serve the party rather than the people.

The government has long been irked by an independent judiciary.

At Polokwane, it resolved that “[w]hilst justice is an exclusive national competency, there is a need to look at the matter carefully in the context of co-operative governance with particular reference to access and equity. We reaffirm the need for everyone to respect the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, especially in so far as the adjudicative function of the courts is concerned. The judiciary must adjudicate without fear, favour or prejudice, but should also respect the areas of responsibility of other arms of the state and not unduly encroach in those areas.”

In George-Bush talk, that’s down with the activist judges, activist meaning anybody that doesn’t follow the narrowly defined political agenda of executive choice.

And so it proved when the executive skipped over Dikgang Moseneke, the deputy chief judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, to promote Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to the post of chief justice, reportedly because comments by Moseneke on the independence of the judiciary angered the ruling party. This after the Presidency tried to extend the term of office of chief justice Sandile Ngcobo – something considered constitutionally problematic by legal experts.

When talking about the media, the ANC noted at Polokwane that “some fractions of the media continue to adopt an anti-transformation, anti-ANC stance.”

“The ANC is faced with a major ideological offensive, largely driven by the opposition and fractions in the mainstream media, whose key objective is the promotion of market fundamentalism, control of the media and the images it creates of a new democratic dispensation in order to retain old apartheid economic and social relations,” delegates at Polokwane noted in a paranoid tone, taken up by minister of state security Siyabonga Cwele to legitimise the Protection of State Information Bill in its current form.

Delegates then held up the financially failing and scandal prone SABC (it’s the most optimistic turn of phrase I could think of in relation to the public broadcaster) as an example of what the media should look like in South Africa. “There is a strong public broadcaster [the SABC] on whom millions of our people daily depend for information, and which has an important role to play in the deepening of democracy and involvement of the people in the process of social and economic change.”

Delegates also called for “social cohesion” – really a call for no dissent – when it was said, “Building social cohesion and promoting values of a caring society are an essential part of the battle of ideas and must underpin and inform the manner in which the media operates.”

Like Parliament and the judiciary, the media is supposedly one of the safeguards we have come to rely upon against any executive excess. While Parliament and the judiciary operates within the sphere of government, with its rules and regulations and political deployments, media stands outside, and offers perspectives and insights the politically whipped MPs dare not utter, and where processes, rules and etiquette silence judges, who can only rule if a case made its way through the lengthy corridors of the law.

The media has always been the outsider, closer to the rabble (said with fondness) than the powerful, and with more freedom to call it as it sees it.

When we talk about the gradual decline of the institutions meant to protect democratic ideals, we are also talking about the media.

While many journalists and editors slog away at what they see as their duty – to inform the public and expose the misuse of power – they are for the most part commercial enterprises run by hard-nosed bean counters or those peddling for political influence. Media houses that run respected newspapers with long and proud journalistic histories also run tabloid newspapers with little interest in ethics of any kind. When these organisations speak out for media freedom, they seem two-faced and this undermines public sympathy for their cause.

And yet there is no point in talking about tightening legislation around how the media operates unless we also talk about strengthening democratic institutions and countering the increasingly centralised power of state in the offices of the executive.

The assault on democratic systems of governance is a global phenomenon – look no further than the turmoil roiling Europe as governments step down in Greece and Italy, to be replaced by unelected leaders tasked with enforcing austerity measures imposed by unelected bodies such as the IMF and the ECB.

Or to the UK, where successive leaders have built an effective surveillance state, and talk of cracking down on social media during times of civil disobedience is as rife as in the backrooms of the authoritarian regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Modern US electoral politics are built on fear and colour-coded security levels, while oversight slips on increasingly secretive and powerful security agencies.

The rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, of people-power in countries through-out the Middle East and North Africa, the mass protests we are seeing in the EU countries worse affected by the continuing global financial crisis (the sovereign debt crises, such as the mortgage and credit crisis, are part of a larger systematic failure in the global economic model, rather than an event to be viewed in isolation), are testimony that no government can afford to lose sight of the fact that its citizens are not its subjects.

The gradual criminalisation of society through mountains of legislation, affecting everybody whether they are kids downloading music on the Internet or drivers that forgot their ID cards at home, or by making it illegal to access information in the public interest, are obvious examples of the erosion of personal freedom of citizens.

Individual rights protect us against abuses of power by the government or a momentary political majority. How many are we prepared to lose before anger overcomes the fear?

In the Daily Maverick, Jay Naidoo, a former general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and government minister, writes that even as Tunisia ranked very high on the Mo Ibrahim index of development “the frustration with a predatory elite around the dictatorship of Ben Ali drove a revolution that has redefined the 21st century and brought down seemingly invincible dictators.”

“The reason for the revolution was an anger against a secretive state that took away the voice of people – and sheltered an increasingly corrupt and intertwined economic and political elite who controlled the state,” writes Naidoo.

“Mahmoud Bouzizi was our Hector Pieterson, and his fiery sacrifice opened the floodgates of democracy. The slogan was explicit – social justice, freedom and democracy – all essential ingredients of the right to know and express our voice. Our policymakers in our Parliament must sit up and understand how this became a powerful spark for revolution.”

The legislation you gradually let trickle through erodes not only the hard-won freedoms we enjoy but also society’s patience. The voiceless shout the loudest and with their fists raised.

Bizcommunity Originally published on Bizcommunity.com Marketing & Media | South Africa – click to see more comments.