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South African Media Fear Government Crackdown

  • Joe DeCapua

In South Africa, the government and ruling ANC party are being accused of trying to censor the media and limit a free press.

Media outlets are reacting to a proposed media tribunal and legislation that could sharply curtail investigative journalism of alleged government wrongdoing. Critics of the proposals liken them to media laws in effect during the apartheid years.

VOA reporter Delia Robertson, in Johannesburg, says, “It essentially, will be called the Media Appeals Tribunal. And it will mean that anybody can take a complaint to the tribunal to determine whether they’ve been unfairly treated by the media or they’re unhappy with reporting in the media.”

Tribunal vs. the courts

Critics of the tribunal ask why take complaints against the media to a tribunal when the courts and other bodies are already set-up to handle such matters?

“That’s a question a lot of people in this country are asking. We have already a press ombudsman. We have statutory organizations, such as the Human Rights Commission and the Public Protector. And all of these are available for people who have complaints against the media,” says Robertson.

The Public Protector’s office was established to investigate complaints against government agencies or officials and is independent of the government or political parties.

“There is great concern that the purpose of this, combined together with a new law the ANC is trying to push through Parliament called the Protection for Public Information Act, will stifle any sort of investigation into wrongdoing by public figures.”

The proposed legislation would allow government officials to decide what information is in the national interest and should not be released to the media.

“Which means essentially that anybody in the government at a specific rank, who doesn’t wish certain information to leak into the public domain or to be made public, can say this is information that needs to be protected.” she says.

Media uproar

Media outlets are strongly opposed to the proposals. Robertson says, “There have been a number of meetings held already. Yesterday, in all the national newspapers, the editors placed a statement condemning these proposals and the law. And they’ve been holding meetings with the government and tomorrow (Tuesday) the editors will meet with senior officials in the ANC.”

The South African National Editors’ Forum is among those leading the fight against the measures.

In the United States, such proposals would be challenged on constitutional grounds for violating free speech rights. Robertson says similar challenges are expected in South Africa.

“That is one of the points that has been made by the editors and experts,” she says, “that these proposals will violate rights entrenched in the constitution. And so I expect that if they are implemented by the government we’re going to see challenges in the courts.”

Years in the making

The proposals first surfaced in 2007 when now President Jacob Zuma was elected as president of the ANC. Shortly thereafter, Thabo Mbeki stepped down as South African president and was succeeded by Mr. Zuma.

She says, “What triggered it was probably the investigation and the leaks around the case of corruption and fraud that was brought against (Zuma). And also, since he became president, the number of cases of questionable actions by the government expenditure, cases of corruption, cases of dereliction of duty have just skyrocketed.”

She says those most in favor of the tribunal and proposed legislation have been the targets and subjects of media exposés.