CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Free and vigorous news media are essential to democracy, especially in the developing world, where there is little other accountability. Yet vigilant media threaten those leaders who prefer unquestioned control and propaganda outlets.
This tension between government-imposed discipline and honest, fearless journalism has been growing in South Africa, a critical bastion of freedom on a continent where media independence is mostly honored in the breach.
Now, in a worrying move mirroring some of the tactics of unsavory regimes elsewhere in Africa, President Thabo Mbeki's South Africa proposes to change the giant South African Broadcasting Corporation from an independent public radio and television entity into a government propaganda machine.
The corporation's charter now enshrines freedom of expression. A crucial clause reads that the corporation will "enjoy freedom of expression and journalistic, creative, and programming independence."
The government wants to remove that clause and replace it with language that ensures "responsible" and "accurate, accountable and fair reporting," as defined by the government. Journalists for the corporation would have to act in the "best interests" of the corporation, and South Africa.
The board that runs the corporation would have to prepare a plan for the minister of communications showing how its journalists and broadcasters would ensure "responsible" reporting that conforms to the "best interests" of the nation.
Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, the minister, wants the corporation, as South Africa's public broadcaster, to be accountable to South Africa. She also wants the corporation's work to comply with standards of "decency."
Broadcasters who provide "misinformation" that causes currency devaluations, for example, are not appropriately "accountable to South Africa." They would be doing a disservice to the nation. Journalists should not undermine the economy, she said.
"We want accountability; we also want to ensure that you don't have somebody who can actually cause you wars because of what they broadcast," the minister said.
President Mbeki and his ministers have long had an uneasy relationship with its big public broadcaster. They want it to be more "responsible," a code word for responsive and obedient. Since it broadcasts in South Africa's 11 official languages, and blankets the country in a way that none of the private TV and radio stations do, the South African Broadcasting Corporation has power and reach.
Until a year ago, the corporation's news department remained strongly independent. But a series of ousters and resignations of key news directors, and the communications minister's veiled attacks on the corporation, show South Africans that the government's yearning for control is continuing to grow. Opposition politicians and independent news monitors are complaining loudly.
Mbeki's government does not welcome criticism, especially from the news media. He has clashed directly with African editors about what is fair and responsible. Freedom of speech over the government's controversial AIDS policy has also been curtailed, and individual physicians have been forced out of government hospitals for voicing their opinions.
South Africa's media are still more free than the media in much of the rest of Africa, and indeed in the entire developing world. In Zimbabwe last month, the government used a bomb to destroy a private antigovernment broadcasting studio, and last year bombed the presses of the leading independent daily. In Malawi, Zambia, and Kenya, the press has repeatedly been harassed by its leaders, and editors have been detained. In most of those countries, and in most of Africa and the developing world, the only TV and broadcasting permitted is by tightly controlled, government-owned stations.
South Africa has a long tradition of a combative press, especially under apartheid, and of a public broadcaster that has cherished its independence since 1994.
If Ms. Matsepe-Casaburri succeeds in reining in the South African Broadcasting Corporation, South Africa, and Africa, will have lost one more of its democratic beacons. Her success will also further highlight Mbeki's leadership trajectory. If South Africa becomes less free, what hope is there for the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Democracy, both among Mbeki's most positive projects for the continent?
Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard's Program on Intrastate Conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation.