Issue of Free Press Now Divides Old Allies Who Fought Apartheid

South Africa's black-led government sees press criticism as disloyalty

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nelson Mandela's African National Congress once viewed liberal journalists as partners in its struggle to overthrow oppressive white rule. That's all changed now that the party is in power.

These days the ANC, at the helm of South Africa's first black-majority government, is increasingly intolerant of media criticism, lashing out at black or white reporters who dare to question its mistakes.

As the ANC shows little acceptance of dissent within the party itself, so journalists who question Mr. Mandela's policies are becoming targets of verbal attacks.

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Mandela and his heir apparent, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, have insisted since coming to power in the first multiracial elections in 1994 that they believe in free speech. But on several recent occasions they have accused the media of being unfair and even unpatriotic by finding fault with their actions.

Raymond Louw, head of the Freedom of Expression Institute, a Johannesburg-based watchdog group, says that the ANC-dominated government instinctively has become defensive instead of learning from what are often valid criticisms. Overall, South African media coverage of the government has been positive and not prone to exaggerated opprobrium, he says.

"When the press is critical of them, they [Mandela and Mr. Mbeki] get all bitter and twisted and sore," Mr. Louw says. "They are oversensitive to what one regards as normal practice by newspapers."

Louw traces the trend back to 1994, when Mbeki asked journalists in Cape Town why they needed to disparage the government now that they had a democracy.

Other senior government officials have gone so far as to publicly appeal to journalists to write favorable accounts of their policies in the name of national unity.

The deteriorating relationship with the press coincides with increased intolerance for dissent within the ANC and an embarrassing scandal involving the country's first black health minister, Nkosazana Zuma.

Some journalists are drawing parallels between their treatment and that of Bantu Holomisa, a popular ANC maverick. Mr. Holomisa was recently expelled from the party and sacked as deputy environmental and tourism minister for making revelations about bribes and funding that damaged the party's image.

Mandela last month singled out white-owned media for an uproar over Dr. Zuma's role in the unauthorized expenditure of more than 10 million rand ($2.2 million) of European Union donor money on an extravagant AIDS-awareness play. He claimed a racist campaign was being waged against Zuma and defended her against widespread allegations of incompetence.

Then on Sept. 28, Mandela lashed out at senior black journalists for criticizing what he said were government attempts to promote national reconciliation.

"We want criticism. We want the press to be a pillar of our democracy. No democracy can survive without the freedom of the press, but they [senior black journalists] think freedom of speech is theirs alone," Mandela told a graduation ceremony at the University of the North in Pietersburg.

He added that these journalists "could not even analyze what is happening in the country."

One of those black journalists who feels targeted by Mandela was Kulu Sibiya, the editor of City Press, which is one of the country's largest black-run newspapers read by much of Mandela's constituency.

Mr. Sibiya says a stern-faced Mandela summoned him on Sept. 23 to discuss a City Press editorial, which had accused the president of "unnecessary interference" in the controversial selection of a new chief justice.

"He was very serious that black journalists should begin to address certain issues as he sees them," Sibiya says. "They [the leaders] think the press is gunning for them. That is unfortunate. They bungle things up and then expect the press to keep quiet."

Zakes Mda, a black playwright, says the ANC government is shortsighted in expecting black journalists to toe the party line because of their race or past alliance with the liberation struggle.

"Critical comment on specific government bungles is not tantamount to questioning the role the ANC has played in the liberation of South Africa," he wrote in a recent editorial in the Star newspaper.

"The positions these journalists take are not determined by political correctness, hence they have been unpopular with all shades of our political spectrum at different times," Mr. Mda wrote.

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