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.

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.

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.

“Historically, South Africa was one of the top performers in the past 15 years, as a model for other African countries,” says Ms. Karlekar. “In South Africa, as in other countries, the media are one of the watchdogs of society in support of good governance in institutions, and to take away the ability to be a watchdog, it weakens democracy as a whole.”

ANC says bill protects 'public good'

For its part, the ruling ANC party argues that such protections are necessary to protect the national interest. In its proposed law, national interest is defined rather broadly, to include “all matters relating to the advancement of public good,” and it also proposes the protection of trade secrets of state organs including “profits, losses, or expenditures of any person.” Those who expose those secrets would be subjected to lengthy jail terms of three to five years.

The ANC also argues that the media – which remain largely under white ownership – have shown that they are unable to regulate itself according to its own ethical code. South Africa’s Press Board adjudicates complaints of defamation through a press ombudsman, but ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu says that judgments from the ombudsman are often disregarded.

"There shouldn't be one group of people called the media who can rubbish you, who can defame you and you have no recourse," says Mr. Mthembu.

President Jacob Zuma, in his weekly letter to ANC members, wrote this weekend, “The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian?”

Erasing the media's independence?

For their part, South African editors say the ANC’s solution to the problem goes too far.

“What this bill sets out to do is return to apartheid-era state security legislation,” says Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian, a top investigative news magazine in South Africa. “It essentially is likely to sever the link between whistleblowers and the media. It criminalizes journalism.”

As for the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal – designed to be accountable to South Africa’s parliament – editor Raymond Louw argues that such a body would essentially erase the independence of South Africa’s media.

“Our ombudsman system is based on the same system used by 80 of the 86 press councils of the democratic world, and papers that are found to have transgressed all have the same punishment,” says Mr. Louw, chairman of the South African Press Concil, which oversees the ombudsman’s office. “The news organization has to apologize, it has to correct the mistake, and it has to print the statement of the ombudsman on a page in the paper that the ombudsman determines.”

“But that is not good enough for the ANC,” says Louw. “They plan to imprison journalists if they get things wrong, and to fine the newspapers heavily. If you have a statutory body set up by the government that is accountable to parliament, then we lose our independence.”

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