Cry freedom ... of expression: SA media under attack (News Feature)
By Clare Byrne Aug 17, 2010, 14:39 GMT
Johannesburg - A month after South Africa scored a victory over pessimists by staging a successful World Cup, the ruling African National Congress risks squandering the tournament's legacy by trying to muzzle the media and step up state secrecy.
In what is billed as a step back towards the type of censorship practiced during apartheid, President Jacob Zuma's ANC has introduced a Protection of Information bill, which would allow almost every
level of government to classify information that is in the 'national interest.'
What the 'national interest' is, is not specified in the bill, which is before parliament. It's also unclear whether the bill would stand up to a constitutional challenge.
'You don't protect information by making it secret. You protect information by airing it,' said a spokesman for the official opposition Democratic Alliance, which has likened the bill to apartheid-era legislation and vowed to challenge it if it is passed by the ANC-dominated parliament.
What it clear is that any such law would kill investigative journalism. Merely possessing classified documents without authorization would be punishable by a jail term of up to 25 years.
In a letter to Zuma on Monday the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists expressed alarm.
The bill was 'reminiscent of apartheid-era regulations since it would virtually shield the government from the scrutiny of the independent press and criminalize activities essential to investigative journalism, a vital public service.'
At the same time the ANC has also resurrected a 2007 party proposal for a Media Appeals Tribunal, constituted by parliament, which would punish journalists 'who get stories wrong'.
This could include journalists who were suspected of bias in their reporting towards a particular political factions, a spokesman for the ANC told a radio debate Tuesday.
Coming amidst a flurry of revelations about corruption involving ANC members, the bill and proposed tribunal are seen by the media and civil society as an attempt to enshrine a creeping culture of impunity.
'Some factions of the media continue to adopt an anti-transformation, anti-development and anti-ANC stance,' the ANC grumbles in a document outlining its case for the print media to be regulated.
A cursory scan on the print media' reveals an 'astonishing degree of dishonesty, lack of professional integrity and independence', the party further accuses.
The party had also lashed out at 'brown envelope journalism' or bribery, although only one such case has come brought to light in recent years.
A Cape Town journalist admitted to receiving money from a senior ANC politician in return for writing flattering stories about him.
The journalist was suspended from the paper and then resigned. By contrast, the politician in question, Ebrahim Rasool, has just been appointed ambassador to the United States.
The ANC says the print media's current system of self regulation in which a media-appointed press ombudsman hears complaints, and in some cases orders printed retractions, isn't punitive enough.
'What we are heading for, is that kind of state ... where they put editors behind bars,' according to the deputy chairman of the South African National Editors Forum Raymound Louw.
Older South African journalists tasted that kind of repression during apartheid, when they dared report on the brutality of the racist regime.
At that time, the ANC and liberal media were in the same camp.
Sixteen years into democracy, the relationship has changed.
Two weeks ago, an investigative journalist with the country's top-selling paper, the Sunday Times, was arrested in dramatic fashion by a swarm of officers from an elite police unit.
Mzilikazi wa Afrika is accused of being in possession of an allegedly hoax resignation letter purportedly sent by the premier of Mpumalanga province to the president.
His real crime, many suspect, was to have reported on an allegedly dodgy deal involving police commissioner Bheki Cele, whom the Times reported as having flouted tender regulations by signing off on a deal to move police headquarters on the quiet. Cele denies the allegations.
The ANC will decide at its national general council in September whether setting up a Media Appeals Tribunal will become party policy.
In the meantime, there are signs of divisions within the party on the matter.
'... that the media should be fought, destroyed, that would be unconstitutional,' Housing Minister Tokyo Sexwale said recently. To do so would be 'running against any value that (former president Nelson) Mandela stands for.'