As the leaders of the ruling African National Congress meet this week in the eastern city of Durban, Reporters Without Borders urges the South African government to abandon two projects, one to create a media tribunal and one to pass a bill protecting information involving “national security.”
The press freedom organisation offers South Africa’s media and civil society its full support in their efforts to combat these two retrograde projects.
“We are amazed that the ANC keeps on coming up with this kind of measure which, if implemented, would represent a dramatic step backwards,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We hope that President Jacob Zuma and all the government will understand the reservations expressed by the media and press freedom groups in recent weeks and will abandon these projects. Not only the independence of South Africa’s journalists but also the country’s image and its role as the engine for all of Africa are at stake.”
The ANC plans to create a media tribunal whose members would be appointed by the government and would have the power to punish breaches of journalistic ethics. If created, the tribunal would usurp the existing system of self-regulation. Led by President Zuma, officials insist that their intention is to protect the public against media abuses. But in the hands of the authorities and the ANC, such a tribunal would jeopardise the media independence that is guaranteed by the 1994 constitution.
The South African parliament is examining a protection of information bill that would classify information that could endanger national security and make publication of such information punishable by up to 25 years in prison. The possibility that journalists could be jailed because of their work, the length of the sentences they could face and the failure to clearly define what is meant by “national security” are all reasons for great concern.
The proposed law could end up making investigative journalism impossible or even illegal. Reporters Without Borders fears that journalists would no longer be able to investigate sensitive stories, such as corruption scandals, for fear of being jailed.
The debate about media freedom in South Africa, which is eliciting heated comments both domestically and abroad, comes at a time of great mistrust between the authorities and the media. When ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema expelled BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher from a news conference on 8 April, he called him a “bastard” and “bloody agent”. Watch the video.
President Zuma’s relations with the media are fraught, especially with those that criticise the way he governs, cover his private life and investigate such sensitive issues as corruption and crime. The times have changed and South Africa has moved on since 1994, but the attitude of the ANC’s current leaders towards the press is disturbing when one recalls the role the party once played in defending fundamental freedoms.
With its bold and diverse media, South Africa has until now been a model of media freedom in Africa. Ranked 33rd out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, it was one of the three African countries that showed most respect for the work of journalists. The ANC’s two projects could change that.