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In ANC bill, South African media see threat to press freedom

The African National Congress (ANC) is proposing a bill that South African media say would take the country back to apartheid-era practices, restricting their ability to investigate government practices and look into cases of incompetence or corruption.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / August 16, 2010

Johannesburg, South Africa

During the height (or depths) of South Africa’s racist apartheid era, draconian media laws restricted reporters from meeting with members of the then-illegal opposition movement, the African National Congress. Even mentioning the names of independence fighters like Nelson Mandela or Jacob Zuma in print was seen as a threat to national security.

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Today, after 16 years in power, the ANC is proposing a bill that South African journalists say would take the country back to those bad old apartheid days, and restrict the news media’s very ability to investigate whether the ANC government is living up to its promises, as well as to look into cases of incompetence or corruption.

In a stroke, the proposed bill has driven a wedge between the ANC and the news media that were once its biggest cheerleaders, and could signal the beginning of an extremely acrimonious period for the country, a stark contrast from the love-fest the country enjoyed during this summer’s World Cup.

“In whatever we do, there is no interest on the part of the ANC to limit the freedom that all of us enjoy, including the press,” Jackson Mthembu, the ANC’s chief spokesman, told reporters Tuesday about the proposed laws. “Your reaction [the media's], as opposed to the reaction of the ordinary man and woman, was different. Ordinary people agree. You just want us to drop the issue.”

Bill would 'weaken democracy'

Combined with its proposal for a media appeals tribunal, which would punish reporters for “irresponsible and misleading reporting,” the ANC’s protection-of-information bill would almost certainly have profound effects on the amount of information that South Africans have about their government.

At a time when some of South Africa’s poorest townships have erupted into fiery protests over the failure of the government to provide basic services, the proposed media laws could muzzle dissent, but also prevent media reporters from digging down into root causes and finding solutions. It could also take some of the shine off of South Africa’s image as a prosperous emerging democracy, an image carefully crafted during the 2010 World Cup.

COVER STORY: As World Cup 2010 kicks off, where South Africa stands 16 years after apartheid

“We see this as part of a broader trend in South Africa, and it’s very worrying,” says Karin Karlekar, managing editor of the Freedom of the Press report for Freedom House in New York. In fact, South Africa has already been downgraded by Freedom House from one of Africa’s freest nations to “partly free” in the think tank’s 2009 annual report. Reasons for the downgrade include increasing legal restrictions on media and harsher rhetoric toward journalists by top-level government officials.