12 August 2010

South Africa: Threat to Press Freedom is Already Here

Photo: AllAfrica
Local and foreign media are criticizing South Africa's ruling African National Congress.


IN RECENT weeks, commentators in the media and commerce and industry have warned of the negative reputation the government will earn by clamping down on people's access to information and freedom to publish. They warned that foreign investors will be scared off.

The debate has focused on the draft Protection of Information Bill and the African National Congress (ANC) mooting the establishment of a punitive statutory media appeals tribunal, both of which will restrict the media's ability to access information.

The threat is perceived to be on the horizon - but it is already here and has been for months.

On April 29, New York-based Freedom House, the respected monitor of the freedoms of countries and media, downgraded SA to "partly free" - a category harking back to apartheid.

With that change in status, Freedom House pronounced harsh censure on SA for its inroads on media freedoms. Downgraded with SA were Botswana and Namibia.

SA's high point in its free status was reached in 2001 but, since then, its assessments by Freedom House have slipped, until its rating rose above 30 - the dividing line between free and partly free - to 32 this year. Top scorers in the international ratings this year were the Scandinavian countries and Iceland. Other ratings are: the US (18), the UK (19), and Australia (22). Sub-Saharan African countries ahead of SA are Mali (25), Ghana (26) and Mauritius (27), among the only five in Africa rated free.

Freedom House explains why it changed SA's status to partly free: "It reflects the threat posed by media-hostile rhetoric on the part of top government officials, as well as official encroachments on the editorial independence of the South African Broadcasting Corporation ...".

It goes on: "An additional worrying factor in 2009 was the passage of the Film and Publications Act, which legitimises forms of prepublication censorship and creates a legal dichotomy between government-recognised publications and others."

Introduced to protect against child pornography and hate speech, the act was criticised by press-freedom advocates as opening the door to prepublication censorship by a government-appointed board not recognised by the Press Ombudsman.

Protection of freedom of expression and of the press in the constitution is generally respected, Freedom House states, noting that there are vibrant press-freedom advocacy and journalists organisations. "Nevertheless, several apartheid-era laws that remain in effect - as well as a 2004 law on antiterrorism - permit authorities to restrict the publication of information about the police, defence forces, prisons and mental institutions and to compel journalists to reveal sources."

It cites government sensitivity to media criticism last year, and the increase in gag orders on media by the government and nonstate actors. It also cites President Jacob Zuma 's 700 000 defamation claims against cartoonist Zapiro and the Sunday Times.

It also notes that journalists are occasionally harassed and assaulted; the pro-ANC bias of the SABC and SABC internal auditors searching the offices of an SABC investigative reporting unit, Special Assignment, and subjecting staff to lie-detector tests.

Freedom House quotes the governance watchdog, Global Integrity, as saying the government threatened to withdraw advertising from newspapers that report on corruption and other scandals.

While Freedom House's references are comprehensive, it omits a string of pending restrictive legislation, court decisions that increased restrictions on reporting, the arrest of journalists on crime scenes, plus the eviction of journalists from court cases without proper cause, a ban on prosecutors giving information to journalists and a new practice by parliamentary committees of holding secret hearings.

The result of all this is that the shining light of freedom has been dimmed in SA.

In the view of the world, SA is no longer free but partly free, and perhaps headed for the "not free" status that envelopes most of Africa.

Louw is editor and publisher of Southern Africa Report and deputy chairman of the SA National Editors' Forum Media Freedom Committee.

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