South African journalists are no strangers to the concept of censorship. During the days of apartheid, the government of the day used censorship as a tool to limit the truth about its policies and therefore effectively promote its own agenda. With the dawn of democracy came a constitution for a new South Africa which stated plainly, “Everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state. And any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.” Journalists in the new South Africa celebrated their new found freedom of speech.
Now, 16 years later, these much lauded freedoms are once again being threatened. The South African parliament is currently debating a “Protection of Information” Bill. This bill proposes to impose restrictions on access to government information and violators of the law would be punished with up to 25 years in prison. The bill would also set rules for those who reveal state secrets and leave it up to politicians to decide what should be defined as a secret.
In additional to the Protection of Information Bill is a proposal by the ruling African National Congress to set up The Media Appeals Tribunal which would be staffed with politicians. Some ANC politicians have proposed that the tribunal have the authority to impose jail time for journalists who go too far in reporting scandals.
CBS News asked Anton Harber, a former newspaper editor about these developments:
The implications are that there's a clampdown on the extraordinary freedom of expression we've had in this country since 1994. There's fear of giving that kind of power to parliament and to politicians to oversee media conduct.
South Africa’s top authors,including those who were banned under the apartheid regime, issued a joint statement against the proposed legislation saying,
denial of freedom of expression makes a mockery of the profession of journalism.
Fred Hatman goes further,
Whether you think that the South African media are doing a good job of reporting to us the facts of whether our country is being properly governed or not, a government that doesn’t hold itself properly accountable wanting to hold what should be an independent press accountable is just rotten. And, in my book, unconstitutional.
Peirre de Vos also questions whether the Media Appeals Tribunal would be constitutional. He concludes by stating,
there is very little that the proposed MAP could legally and constitutionally do that the existing Press Ombudsman or the courts cannot already do. This suggests that the members of Parliament will waste lots and lots of their time – time perhaps better spent attending to the concerns of constituents about potholes, trigger happy policeman, lack of toilets and running water and dysfunctional schools. The legislature will thus either pass a law creating a MAP that will not change anything, or it will pass a law creating a MAP that would be unconstitutional and therefore would be declared invalid by our courts.
Ayanda Kota, chairperson of the Unemployed People's Movement says the proposed bill will make even more impossible to expose corruption:
Had it not been for the Constitutional right of access to information, we would not have uncovered that the Zuma regime spent R1.5 billion of taxpayers money on luxuries. Some of the expenditure includes Lindiwe Sisulu’s purchase of a R7million Mercedes – Benz vehicle. Siphiwe Nyanda who spent R515 000 dining with girlfriends and boyfriends at different five star luxurious hotels. We would not have uncovered that Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma is heading for his first billion while Kgalema Montlante’s lover is also going for her first billion. Reporting on such issues will become even more impossible of a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal is set up.
Members of the South African National Editors Forum also responded to the proposed bill by forming a Coalition for Free Speech to
champion a collective drive by media, big business and civil society to amplify the importance of free speech as a pillar of our democracy and not just a matter which concerns media.
Now let’s look at the flip side of the coin. South Africa's former president Thabo Mbeki once said,
We in Africa can and do benefit from criticism, but we do ask that it should be based on accurate information and should be properly contextualized.
Some would argue South Africa’s media has also not come to the party in reporting news accurately and fairly. As the First Post reports,
Poor training and inexperience are endemic and clearly compromise standards in newsrooms. Unsubstantiated allegations and unchecked information substitute for facts in stories too often – as has been acknowledged by editors themselves.
Siyabonga Ntshingila says the South African media is its own worst enemy.
Pick up any newspaper and read their reporting on the issue. It’s all doomsday hysteria about the ANC looking to transport every journo in the country into Robben Island blindfolded and in shackles. Cheap, alarmist and misinformative.
He goes on to say,
It is very hard to argue against the tribunal when one views the current laissez-faire approach to fact-checking and ethics in (mostly) print media. In fact only the (very important) principle that the government should never be allowed to dictate terms to the press is about the only one that has been raised against the tribunal.
It remains to be seen whether the Protection of Information Bill will be passed and signed into law. Certainly, this chapter in South Africa’s history is one that will test the strength of her constitution and the resilience of her people. I shall leave you with Zapiro’s opinion on the matter: