South African government assaults press freedom

by Dana Liebelson
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

A bill under consideration by South Africa’s governing party threatens to impose harsh media restrictions and journalists fear press freedom will soon be reminiscent of that under Apartheid.

"The bill effectively criminalizes investigative journalism," Nicholas Dawes, editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, told IJNet. "It will also hurt civic activism, and I believe the work of public representatives and the government itself."

On August 4, South African investigative reporter wa Afrika was arrested on grounds of fraud and interrogated about an unpublished story he co-wrote about a police deal. Though charges were dropped, a senior police official later admitted Afrika was detained due to political pressure from the African National Congress (ANC), the party responsible for the bill.

The “Mzilikazi wa Afrika affair” made waves in a country that has boasted some of the highest levels of media freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to Freedom House. In recent years, South Africa’s ranking has steadily slipped, and some journalists point to this recent incident as proof of the deteriorating media climate.

Now, the Protection of Information Bill, introduced by the ANC in March, would impose restrictions on access to government information and criminalize the disclosure of information that harms the “national interest.” The national interest clause is broad enough to include such information as police investigations and commercial transactions.

Under the bill, possession of such information would also be illegal, meaning that a journalist who receives a classified document -- even one that shows government wrongdoing -- can immediately be subject to jail time for not handing the document over to the police. The penalties for disclosure include up to 25 years in prison.

To supplement the bill, the ANC has proposed a Media Appeals Tribunal appointed by government officials, which would mediate complaints against the press. The Tribunal could potentially wield the power to issue jail time to journalists.

The proposal has sparked a widespread backlash from journalists and media advocates worldwide.

“The bill would undoubtedly harm media freedom,” Professor Franz Kruger, director of the Radio Academy at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, told IJNet. “The whole notion of a media tribunal, appointed by parliament and able to hand out as yet unspecified punishment to journalists is very worrying.”

The bill also gives government officials unchecked authority, press freedom advocacy group the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote in a letter to President Jacob Zuma, and government-sponsored media tribunals in Africa “have been used time and time again as instruments of political censorship.”

In defense of the bill, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said in Parliament September 17 that certain definitions had been dropped, including the national interest clause. Cwele flatly denied the proposition of a public interest clause, which the bill’s opponents suggested would help defend whistleblowers. And he reiterated that journalists should hand sensitive documents over to the police.

Human rights group Media Monitoring Africa said it welcomes the change of the language, but maintains the revisions do not go far enough. The group remains concerned about the severity of jail times issued to journalists.

Some experts worry the bill harkens back to the days of censorship in South Africa. During Apartheid, the government repeatedly threatened the media with legislation to punish journalists—but a bill never came to fruition. In the 1980s, a government-appointed press commission pressured journalists to register with the state, arguing, “In the conflict between state and media interests, state interests are paramount.” Again the bill was tabled.

In 1994, then president Nelson Mandela encouraged greater freedoms for media, saying in a speech, “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference… it must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

President Zuma maintains that the current bill is necessary to improve state security. But some have pointed to Zuma’s own foibles with the media as a possible motive. Zuma was under close media surveillance for five years over his relationship with his financial advisor, who was convicted of fraud and corruption. Later, he was involved in a lurid rape trial, where he was ultimately acquitted, but also subject to unrelenting coverage of his personal life. His uneasy relationship with the press was further complicated when he accused the media of violating his children’s right to privacy.

With presidential elections looming in 2012, Zuma is under increasing pressure to maintain his position in the party. The ANC itself is “facing a serious crisis of internal coherence, and deep anxiety about the extent to which cronyism and corruption is eroding its values,” Dawes said.

The ANC has criticized South Africa’s ombudsman system for failing to counteract sensationalist reporting and has proposed the Tribunal as a better alternative. However, according to Kruger, media ombudsmen side with the ANC in more than 60 percent of cases, indicating that the ANC’s complaint of media bias is unfounded. The Press Council of South Africa also recently launched a major internal review.

“Improving journalist quality in South African Society requires that we all give life to the constitutional role assigned to free press,” Dawes said. “This will take time, and it won’t be easy, but it is the only way forward.”