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ANC faction proposes a second South Africa media tribunal

Ahead of the ruling ANC's party meeting next week, a faction suggests altering the Constitution to include a second South Africa media tribunal. Some see the move as a warning to the media to stop fighting a greater degree of regulation.

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“In 1994, at the time of liberation, the ANC were the good guys, but what the media has been showing since then is that there is a gap between what the ANC promised in 1994 and what they delivered,” adds Mr. Matshiqi. That said, the news media themselves “are not angels,” and have appeared to take sides in internal ANC battles. The solution is not media tribunals, he says, but the power of ordinary citizens to “be more critical in how we consume news. When the news media say they are acting in the public interest, they must be careful. I need to be persuaded.”

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With South African editors meeting senior ANC leaders in informal talks last week, there are clear signs that the ANC is ready to discuss possible solutions, including modifying the Protection of Information bill to address key constitutional matters, and working together on strengthening the media’s own self-regulations body, the Press Ombudsman’s office.

Yet the likely contentious meeting of the ANC in Durban could shift the debate away from such rational discourse, with various ANC factions trying to outdo one another in beating on a common enemy: the media.

President Zuma has his own troubled relationship with South African newspapers, due to a half-decade of stories looking into his personal history, from the arms-corruption scandal that got him fired as President Thabo Mbeki’s deputy in 2005 (charges were dropped in 2007), to the rape trial of 2006 (where Zuma was acquitted), to the ongoing media reports on Mr. Zuma’s growing family, with three wives, two fiancées, and 21 children.

In a letter to the ANC last month, Zuma wrote with some sympathy about the beleaguered Russian government and its critical private news media, and said rather pointedly that perhaps the greater threat to South Africa’s media was not from the ANC but from the country’s mainly white business interests.

“They talk about press freedom and perceived potential external threats to it from government, the ruling party, and not threats from commercial interest,” he wrote, adding, “the debate about 'who pays for the news' must also be opened."

Prodding Zuma toward a harder line against the media are a number of powerful factions, including the ANC’s Youth League leader Julius Malema – one of the most-quoted party leaders, due to his combative style – and Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who also serves as president of the influential South African Communist Party. Yet the ANC is also tugged in the opposite direction, toward more media freedom, by the Congress of South African Trades Unions, which has lately taken to exposing senior ANC leaders and ministers for their extravagant lifestyles, and inability to improve the livelihoods of South Africa’s working poor.

What remains to be seen is which faction wins out.

Matshiqi, the analyst, says the media should not be complacent. “I suspect if you put this to a referendum, the majority of South Africans would vote in favor of the media tribunal,” says Matshiqi. “This does not mean that the majority is right, but the media must not assume that the majority see them as serving their interests anymore.”

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