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OPINION: Democrats don't wilt under scrutiny

The night when the signal from Parliament was jammed will go down in history as a full-frontal assault on our right as South Africans to hold our government accountable. Was this a turning point for our young democracy?

In a week when we should have been celebrating the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, the events in Parliament showed a flagrant disregard for Mandela's words at the dawn of freedom.

He assured world editors at a conference of the International Press Institute in 1994 that: "A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens."

Together with the liberation movements and the international community, the media played an important role in bringing the apartheid state to account. It was the media that exposed atrocities such as detentions without trial and bannings, as well as torture and murder of activists, and the impact of the regime's repressive legislation. The media's exposés undoubtedly played an important role in the demise of apartheid.

So what is the role of the media today? The media fulfils an important role in holding public officials to account. When the ability of the media to do its job is hindered, the levers of accountability are weakened.

In the same International Press Institute speech, Mandela told those editors that the ANC had nothing to fear from criticism: "I can promise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny."

In 2015, political scrutiny is immediate, and no signal jammer or adjustment of the camera-angle in Parliament will stop the high tide of the information age. Within minutes of the forcible removal of opposition MPs from the chamber, Eyewitness News had uploaded the violent images that shocked South Africa and the world. By the weekend, 270 000 downloads had been made from the website. A healthy measure of our democracy is the degree to which citizens can scrutinise their elected officials without fear or interference.

The jamming incident in Parliament - which has since been explained as an act of a lone low-level technician who acted without top-level political instruction - is a fundamental deviation from our commitment to transparency and freedom of expression.

At its most basic level, what happened that Thursday prevented ordinary South Africans from communicating with each other and prohibited the media from disseminating real-time images and stories about what was unfolding inside the Chamber.

Members of the media in the press gallery tried, in vain, to get the signal turned back on long before President Jacob Zuma entered the National Assembly. After at least two hours of futile lobbying, they started to chant "bring back the signal". To my disappointment and shock, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, who was watching this from the floor, took to Twitter to accuse Primedia's head of news and current affairs, Yusuf Abramjee, of siding with opposition parties. She also threatened him.

In one tweet, she said: "You are pushing us too much and you are hardening us day by day, we are at the edge right now, and if you want to know us, carry on." It is not immediately clear to me what is implied by the phrase "if you want to know us, carry on".

Is the minister threatening to jail journalists? Whatever was meant by the threat, as the head of Primedia, I unreservedly condemn attacks of this nature on any member of our team. Indeed, I would condemn it if it happened to journalists from other media houses. Open communication and freedom of expression are not party political matters, they are the cornerstone of a free society.

While we are understandably focused on the political implications of jamming the signal, we should not lose sight of the profound economic repercussions. South Africa relies strongly on foreign investment and, in particular, portfolio flows that help us finance our current account.

Recently, ratings agency Fitch reaffirmed South Africa's credit rating, saying standards of governance and the business climate were stronger than the BBB median. Incidents such as the one that occurred on February 12 - and reactions to them - are important considerations to an investment decision by investors and rating agencies.

If there is a gap between what is enshrined in the Constitution and the actions of those who are supposed to defend it, investors will not hesitate to move their money elsewhere.

Quite rightly, Icasa, the communications industry regulator, stated that the jamming was illegal. In regulated industries such as broadcast media, playing by clearly determined rules drives positive investor sentiment and creates industry certainty.

In South Africa, broadcast licences are not awarded in the middle of the night and cannot be taken away in the morning at the whim of an official. Standards of good governance are critical for our political and economic well being.

Media freedom is not a matter that only concerns media owners. Every South African must pay close attention to the events of February 12 and jealously guard the hard-won rights that we enjoy today. We must use the institutions created by our Constitution to seek relief when we feel that our rights have been violated.

This explains why the SA National Editors' Forum and various media houses have correctly instituted legal action seeking relief from the courts to ensure that signal jamming does not occur in Parliament again and that the camera angles are not tampered with to manage what South Africans can and cannot see in the National Assembly.

What happened on that night was bad for our country. There is no space for subterfuge in our constitutional democracy.

Roger Jardine is Primedia CEO.

This article first appeared in City Press.

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