Freedom of Expression Institute

Thursday, 3 May, 2007 - 07:46

Champion for Critical Commentary  The South African constitution is not unique in citing freedom of expression as a human right that all people have by virtue of being human.

Champion for Critical Commentary 

The South African constitution is not unique in citing freedom of expression as a human right that all people have by virtue of being human. However, the right to the freedom of expression has been violated many times nationally and internationally. The violation and struggle for the realisation of this right gave birth to the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) in 1994.

Before 1994, the South African government was extremely repressive and undermined the majority of the population’s freedom of expression. Although post-1994 many things have changed, some actions on the side of the state indicate that the right to freedom of expression continues to be undermined and repressed by the new South African state in the democratic era.

In response to this, the FXI was established to protect and foster the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, and to oppose censorship. In support of these objectives, the organisation undertakes a wide range of activities which include lobbying, education, monitoring, research, publicity and litigation and the funding of legal cases that advance these rights.

FXI was formed from a merger of three organisations, namely the Campaign for Open Media, the Media Defence Trust and the Anti-Censorship Action Group.

From Manning the Telephone to the Hot Seat
Jane Duncan, the current Executive Director for FXI was also coordinator of a predecessor organisation of the FXI, the Anti-Censorship Action Group. Before that, she worked at the Funda Centre in Soweto and then at the Afrika Cultural Centre in Newtown. Although Duncan’s career started in the arts, she argues that the organisation and its work has grown on her.

Duncan started off as a receptionist, answering telephones and queries for the organisation. In the time between 1994 and 2007, she has built herself within the organisation, gaining as much information as possible about the organisation from the bottom up. Duncan has worked as the Publication and Education Coordinator, as Head of Policy and Research, as Acting Director and finally to being appointed to her current position in 2001.

When Duncan first joint FXI she says that she, “Did not know about freedom of expression then.” However, Duncan does acknowledge that at the time she did have a strong interest in the political freedom of the country. Her strong interest in the political freedom of the country coincided with that of the repression of freedom of expression in the late 1990s when it became clear that freedom of expression was under stress.

She cites the shift from the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy model as an important landmark for the repression of the freedom of expression in SA post 1994. Duncan argues that this shift brought with it cut backs in social services and the public’s freedom of expression because of the narrow stabilisation methods adopted at the time.

Duncan appraises SA’s development challenges within the context of the country’s democratic transition. She argues that, “Our transition promised a lot but it has been hamstrung.” Duncan maintains that the massive levels of poverty which were not properly addressed in the negotiations may lead to more instability if they are not addressed.

Within the FXI spectrum, Duncan’s key responsibility is to provide overall strategic leadership and management for the FXI.

Continuing the Fight for Freedom of Expression
FXI has assigned itself the task of promoting freedom of expression, media diversity and opposing censorship; with the ultimate goal of achieving a society, “Where everyone enjoys freedom of expression and the right to access and disseminate information and knowledge.”

The organisation does this through the work that is undertaken by the Anti-Censorship Programme, which monitors and lobbies against the levels of violation of the freedom of expression in SA. Duncan notes that when this particular programme was launched in 2002 it caused a lot of controversy because people did not think that this programme had merit in a democratic state. Ironically, one such person who was sceptical of the relevance of this programme was John Perlman, former SAFM radio anchor who resigned from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) following the controversy over the blacklisting of certain commentators from being interviewed on the SABC.

A Focus on Social Movements
Also keeping a close eye on the state of the media freedom and the violation of freedom of expression in our country is the Media and ICT Programme which aims to increase pro-diversity and popular access to media, broadcasting and telecommunications policy in SA; and the Access to Information Programme which works to ensure much greater usage of the Constitutional right of access to information.

Duncan acknowledges that with only a staff contingency of 9 people, FXI cannot hope to accomplish all the work that they would like to do. She says that the organisation, “Has to do more with less.” As a means of rectifying this problem, FXI has taken on the task of empowering social movements by building their capacity and knowledge of their rights as per the constitution.

FXI has placed its main focus on social movements and poor communities and the work that they do for poor communities. Their aim is to build the capacity of social movements, such as Abahlali Masemjondolo, who work closely with poor communities. Duncan argues that it is social movements that need the most information and resources. “We try and shift from fire-fighter mode to encourage people to take on their own issues,” she says.

David takes on Goliath
In November 2006, the FXI held a march to the Head Office of the SABC in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, where they issued a memorandum to SABC Management. The memorandum raised a number of complaints about the conduct of the public broadcaster. Chief among the issues raised was that the SABC seems to be drifting from its mandate of being a public broadcaster and has set itself up as a propaganda arm of the government. The memo also included concerns around the content of news, the blacklisting of commentators and the non-screening of the documentary on President Thabo Mbeki. In the month of March 2007, FXI has held various pickets outside the SABC Head Offices in Johannesburg and Durban, demanding a response to the memorandum.

“We must sort out the problem of the SABC once and for all,” Duncan says when asked about the organisations strategic focus for 2007. FXI is extremely worried about the rise of self censorship that has hit the SABC. Duncan view this as a social problem that must be addressed as quickly and as expediently as possible.

The organisation also aims to see that the SABC increases the number of programmes that reflect on the realities of working class and poor communities.

Long and Up-Hill Battle Against Civic Activism
Duncan realises that although the SABC does pose a huge problem for freedom of expression, it is not the only social problem that poses a threat to this right. She highlights a meeting that the FXI is currently organising, where they will invite the Minister of Safety and Security to address the organisation’s unease with the Gathering Act.

FXI has been concerned for some time at the way in which local authorities use the Gathering Act's restrictive provisions to frustrate the right of individuals to assemble and express themselves peacefully. Duncan refers to the case of a high school student Teboho Mkhonza who was shot and killed by police in August 2004 as he participated in a peaceful demonstration to highlight the lack of delivery of basic services by the local authority.

As the year progresses, FXI has also set itself the goal of assisting students and academics from various universities around South Africa achieve academic freedom. Duncan argues that, “Increasingly universities are being run like businesses.”

To substantiate her point, she refers to the organisations concerns about the way in which universities, with specific reference to UKZN and Fort Hare, have been conducting themselves when disciplining academics who criticise the institution. FXI is opposed to the shifting power within these institutions which has lead to money being the determining factor in the way that the institution is run.

An Enlightened View of Purpose
Despite the challenges that FXI is facing, Duncan contends that, “We want to work our way out of a job because we would be failing society is we do not do that.” It is her stringent wish the cases that the organisation is called on to take decrease, because they have done their job so well that there is no longer a need for their services. 

To ensure that this wish becomes a reality, FXI is currently shifting itself to play more of a capacity building role by empowering social movements with the tools and the knowledge about freedom of expression and their rights. The aim of this exercise is to empower the social movements to the point that the bulk of the work can be undertaken by social movements who normally feel the brunt of the repression of their freedom of expression the most.

- Pictures Courtesy of FXI.

- Badumile Duma, Civil Society Information Coordinator, SANGONeT.

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