The new frontline of the battle for media freedom

A burnt-out shell of a building on the edge of Zamdela township, Sasolburg, is the new frontline of the fight for free expression.

It was until last weekend the home of Karabo FM, a community station which has served this area since 2009. At 8.25pm on Saturday, as two guests discussed cultural matters with a presenter in the studio, two armed men in balaclavas arrived, cleared everyone out, poured inflammable liquid everywhere and set it alight.

They took nothing but cellphones. It was a planned, organised, targeted attack. When they arrived, this building was a modest but important focal point for community life, action, and debate; when they left, it was a gutted war-relic, with no ceilings or windows and studio and computer equipment reduced to twisted metal, caked with black ash. In the foyer stood the tortured wrecks of two bicycles the studio guests had arrived on; silenced mid-sentence, they presumably had to trudge home, thinking about how difficult it might be now to talk to the community.

The station was treading a difficult path between furious factions in the fight over the township’s planned incorporation into the Ngwathe District, which led to a wave of violence and unrest early this year.

The signs of that conflict are still visible. Driving through, the rhyming couplet “Fuck Ace,” and “Fuck Parys” is still painted on many walls. Ace refers to Premier Ace Magashule, and Parys is the nearby town in the Ngwathe District which they were due to become a part of. The residents of Zamdela believe their standard of living will sink even lower if they take on the troubles of Ngwathe.

It is one of those areas of dissatisfaction where the critical on-the-ground fight between the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance will be played out. The biggest car I saw in the township this week was a giant black Audi pasted with EFF emblems, a flashy, moving symbol of all the complications of politics in this area.

The station finds itself caught between provincial and municipal governments, whom they rely a great deal on for advertising, and a community angry with those authorities. That is not an easy line to tread.

I am not sure they always do it neutrally, as their presenters veered this way and that under pressure. But they ran programmes with and for the authorities to talk about service delivery, and to allow citizens to engage with them, and for police to talk about their work. And they gave voice to a community whose only other recent outlet has been violent protest.

Station manager Dika Kheswa is reluctant to speculate on who might have done it. “We give everyone a chance to raise any issue. Our role is to disseminate all information,” he says. But sometimes, trying to be neutral is not enough and not accepted by those who want you on their side. This is especially true in local media where a lot is at stake and conflicts can be personal and intense.

The station’s destruction, as the National Community Radio Forum put it, takes the community back 5-7 years. And 32 staff members are now out of work. But Kheswa and his management team are determined to get back on air within a few weeks. “We have to close this vacuum. This is when communication is needed most. The community has to come together and sort this out.”

In thinking about media freedom, put aside tribunals, and press councils, and race and gender counts in the big newsrooms, just for a moment. If a little station cannot give voice to the issues of an otherwise largely disempowered community such as Zamdela, then the battle for free expression is lost. This is not theory, nor grand structure, nor constitutional nicety; this is the daily battle to engage as citizens in the future of this country.

The Department of Communications and the Media Development and Diversity Agency have condemned the fire. The station management was off this week to meet Sasol, the company which dominates the area. What is needed now is a show of visible and tangible solidarity to get the station back on its feet and give it political protection.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, September 12, 2013

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