We shouldn’t accept precedents we’ll later regret

I’m about to place my employer in jeopardy of breaching a contract with a very powerful organisation, but sometimes an ombud’s got to do what an ombud’s got to do.

Fifa insists that journalists bind themselves to a set of conditions if they want accreditation to cover the World Cup jamboree. The conditions also bind the media house, and that, I guess, includes me.

The conditions include some astounding ones, such as a commitment not to bring Fifa into disrepute. This is the clause I may, sadly, have to breach.

Fifa’s Zurich-based media head, Pekka Odriozola, told Gill Moodie, publisher of www.grubstreet.co.za, that the provision is designed to prevent journalists from getting drunk and throwing things on to the pitch. You’d have to be pretty gullible to accept that explanation.

Presumably there are general rules and measures to prevent hooliganism on the stands and these would apply as much to journalists as to soccer louts from England or elsewhere. In the context of conditions attached to media accreditation the clause can be understood only as including critical reportage or commentary.

And that puts Fifa’s media regime in clear conflict with the South African Constitution’s guarantees of media freedom.

There are other conditions, around the use of pictures and video, naming hotels where teams are staying and prohibiting newspaper sales within around 800m of stadiums. Perhaps most astonishing of all is a clause that says Fifa can arbitrarily add and change conditions later — and the news organisation remains bound by them.

Fifa has emphasised that the preamble to the conditions includes a commitment to freedom of expression. Raymond Louw, who is spearheading the South African media’s objections to the accreditation arrangements, says Fifa’s South African and Swiss lawyers have recently written to confirm that all conditions will be read in the light of this initial general commitment.

It may be, as Louw says, that this will reassure editors, but I don’t think it is good enough.

If Fifa really does believe in media freedom, then surely the football body could draft conditions that reflect this commitment throughout and avoid loose formulations that are guaranteed to have a chilling effect on journalists.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that this is exactly the intention. Fifa would like to have the media onside, to prevent reporting that could sour the euphoria that will drive ticket sales. It has shown a deep desire to control every aspect of life, wanting to turn South Africa into nothing less than one huge World Cup theme park.

There’s apparently a pharmacist outside Ellis Park who won’t be able to trade on match days because the display of Panado in his window falls foul of the definition of ambush marketing. Municipalities around the country have passed bylaws that make it illegal for informal traders to sell their onions and tomatoes near stadiums. Fans will be checked to make sure they aren’t wearing T-shirts with illicit logos.

Don’t get me wrong: it will be exciting to play host to the world of football this year and to feel the eyes of the world on our little tip of the continent.
But it is also irritating to find an invited guest walking through the door and immediately taking charge of the household.

The national mood is one of huge enthusiasm for the World Cup anyway. We seem to be willing to accept absolutely any conditions, any infringements of our normal rights, rules and arrangements.

This week it was announced — almost by the way — that the rugby authorities were given special permission to stage an international against France at Newlands in June. The local organising committee “bent” the Fifa rules, which actually say that no other major sporting event may take place in host cities during the World Cup.

It’s like having to ask permission to use your own kitchen.

Last Sunday marked the deadline for applications for media accreditation. For fear of being left out of the show of the year, most journalists will have agreed to Fifa’s rules.

The South African National Editors’ Forum has suggested that editors write letters to Fifa reserving the right to report in the normal, independent way. I hope they do: it is the very minimum that should be done.

We should remember that after that final whistle is blown in July, the Fifa caravan will rumble off to some other lucky fairground. We will be left, not just with a number of top-notch stadiums and a boosted tourism industry, but also with an impact on the institutions of our national life.

We should ensure that we don’t regret accepting a precedent that would harm everybody’s right to be freely informed.

This column was originally published in The Mail & Guardian on February 10, 2010.

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