August 23, 2010


– Thomas Jefferson

Last Friday, I received an early phone call from a former student I taught while I lived in what’s now called Zimbabwe. Today she’s 62 years-old and runs a travel agency out of South Africa. She’d like to sell the business and retire but the economy is bad so she carries on. I get e-mails from her with articles from the local press farily regularly. The stories they tell are often different from the news we get here. For example, South Africa received positive media coverage worldwide for the way it hosted the World Soccer Cup recently. What isn’t so broadly discussed is the country spent a good deal of money to prepare for the event, but any profits generated didn’t trickle down to the general economy. People’s dreams of an improved life were unfilled. Where the money went is anyone’s guess but the people of South Africa don’t want to guess anymore. They want their fair share. 

To forward their demands, the country is experiencing a national strike which includes not only teachers but doctors and the police. Workers are gambling if they bring the country to a halt, they’ll get the government’s attention. Not surprisingly, the government is developing strategies to cope. One of them is to attack the press, blaming it for fostering the unrest. Laws are being promulgated that will strangle a free press.

Clamping down on the flow of information is among the first signs that a country is in trouble. Once a free press is silenced, the suppression of individual rights usually begins. It’s a pattern of control seen in many dictatorships around the globe. 

When I was a politician, I complained about the media more than once. I’ve done a little of it in these blogs. The media can be lazy, inaccurate or guilty of riding a hobby horse. But love it or hate it, it is a necessary component of freedom. During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson suffered at the hands of the press yet he left office as one of its staunchest defenders. There needs to be transparency between the governed and those who would lead them. I hope the people of South Africa remain awake to this need. What’s at stake is more than money. What’s at stake is their freedom. 

PS.  Let the record show, I just said something nice about the media.