News / Africa

South African Government and Ruling Party Seek to Curtail Media Freedom

There is widespread and deep concern in South Africa that the ruling party and the government are seeking to introduce measures that will severely curtail the media freedoms guaranteed in the country's constitution.  

President Jacob Zuma's government has presented a new law to parliament for consideration that seeks to tighten protection of government information, and is currently known as the Protection of Information Bill. And the ruling African National Congress is proposing a so-called Media Appeals Tribunal that will override the current self-regulatory mechanisms in the media.

But editors and lawyers say both proposals include elements that will violate media freedoms guaranteed in terms of the constitution.  

Most countries have legislation that classifies information that could jeopardize the national interest if it became public.  But Thabo Leshilo, of the South Africa National Editors Forum (SANEF) says the language of the proposed South African law is far too sweeping.  

"As it stands now it provides too wide a definition of what is called national interest.  It defines it as something as construed to be in the public good.  Now, anything can be said to be in the public good," he said.

Leshilo, who chairs SANEF's media freedom committee, says it also a problem that authority to classify information can be delegated to very low ranking government officials. He says that in this way information that the public needs to know, could be withheld from them.

"That includes information for something as, which is not seen as of state security as service delivery protests, if people are protesting over service delivery, or the failure of local government or municipalities to provide services, they can simply declare that information to be classified," he said.

The proposed law envisages sentences up to 25 years in jail and Leshilo says it is outrageous that a journalist could go to jail for years for exposing the wrong doing of government officials.

The government argues the proposed legislation will not violate media freedoms but the growing pressure, local and international, has caused concern at the highest level.  Following its weekly meeting the Cabinet said it is committed to meeting with SANEF and government spokesman Themba Maseko said while it will continue the process to have the bill made law, the government is willing to consider submissions from interested parties.

The ANC's proposal for a media appeals tribunal that will override the current system of an ombudsman and review committee comes from a resolution at its national conference in 2007 that elected Jacob Zuma president of the ANC.  But it seems to have come to the fore recently following numerous reports of extravagant expenditure by government ministers, and those ministers who have been the subject of such reports have been most vocal in its support.

President Zuma, who has also very strong in his support of the bill, has also been the subject of negative publicity over his personal life in the past year.  A polygamist with three wives and 21 children, he has recently had at least one extra-marital affair that resulted in the birth of a child.  Mr. Zuma considers such information to be private, but the head of the Media24 Journalism Academy Mathatha Tsedu says such information should not be private for the president of the country.

"Now is that really a private matter when we as South African tax payers pay for everything that he does including all his children, all his spouses - we take care of that in terms of our taxes? So in that instance I don't think so," said Tsedu.

Tsedu, who is also chairperson of the African Editors Forum, says editors across the continent are already deeply concerned.

"There is huge consternation around what is happening here, because whereas many of my colleagues out there on the continent are dealing with seriously repressive governments, they were always able to point to South Africa as an example of an African country where media has sufficient freedom," she said.

Tsedu says that already officials from repressive governments are telling editors in those countries the South African government is finally coming to its senses.

Senior ANC officials also argue that one of the problems with the media is that it is predominantly owned by whites and foreigners and that newsrooms still do not reflect the country's race demographic.  Editor Leshilo says that while ownership remains a problem, it is nonsense to say that newsrooms are too white.  He says that most major newspapers in the country are edited by blacks.  He says the real problem for the ANC and the government is that black reporters and editors are, overwhelmingly, not willing to overlook government failings.

"You look at a newspaper like The Sowetan, it has always been a black edited newspaper with a very, very strong voice, and one thing they don't like about the Sowetan is that it was there in the trenches with them during the days of the struggle [against apartheid], and it knows exactly what the struggle was about, and it knows where the struggle is being betrayed," he said.

Black journalists who write critically about the ANC and the government are often labelled as traitors, while whites are frequently branded as racist; both groups are said to be unpatriotic.

The government and the ANC also often charge that the media is sloppy and often gets facts wrong, and that the subjects of those reports are unfairly slandered.  Tsedu says the media does get it wrong, but not nearly as often as its detractors allege.  He adds that SANEF is currently looking at ways to improve its self-regulatory systems.

"There is a willingness within SANEF and within the Ombudsman's office to look at how to improve on the way that the office operates and how editors respond to complaints," said Ttsedu.

Leshilo says that if the government and ANC press ahead with their proposals, editors will take them to the constitutional court to be tested.  He and other editors will likely be pleased to note that the General Council of the Bar has now also denounced the proposals saying they will not pass constitutional muster.

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