South Africa’s press freedom tug-of-war

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By
Karin Deutsch Karlekar
Project Director of "Freedom of the Press"

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Threats to media freedom in South Africa—which has had one of the most open press environments on the continent since the end of apartheid more than 15 years ago—have increased in recent years, raising fears of backsliding in a country seen as a model in the region. These threats have occurred in the context of multiple challenges to democratic consolidation, including recent encroachments on judicial independence and other institutions that provide checks and balances on executive power. In addition, an upsurge of inflammatory rhetoric directed at the white minority, particularly by the faction headed by Julius Malema, president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, has led to the overt injection of race into various debates on political and socioeconomic issues and resulted in increased self-censorship by non-blacks on a range of issues.

In this environment, the ability of the press to serve as a watchdog on official corruption has come under pressure. Investigative units at major newspapers face preemptive surveillance and low-level harassment. The press’s oversight role has been further threatened by the proposed Protection of Information (POI) Bill. The controversial measure has faced concerted opposition from both journalists and civil society groups such as the Right2Know campaign. The legislation places national security and state secrecy above the right to information, a value that is protected by the South African constitution and the Promotion of Access to Information Act. Critics argue that the bill, even in a revised form, would allow officials wide discretion to grant classified status to information in the name of the “national interest”—broadly defined—and would allow stiff penalties of up to 25 years in prison for those who disclose official or classified information, even if it is in the public interest. A number of local analysts have voiced concern that although the justification for the POI Bill has been framed in terms of national security, the government’s actual motive is to reduce the press’s ability to investigate official corruption. In addition to potentially hampering journalists, the bill could also reduce the freedom of academics to conduct research using official sources and the ability of citizens to access government information.

In September, just as delegates were signing the African Platform on Access to Information Declaration at a conference in Cape Town, freedom of expression advocates received word that the ANC had withdrawn the POI Bill from a final parliamentary vote to allow more time for public input and discussion. Advocates welcomed the postponement, as well as the government’s apparent willingness to engage in additional consultations and hearings on the legislation, which are expected to take place throughout November. However, the ANC leadership remains committed to passing the bill before the year’s end, a step that represents a further threat in an environment where media freedom has eroded in recent years. In Freedom of the Press 2010, Freedom House’s annual press freedom index, South Africa was downgraded from Free to Partly Free to reflect negative developments in the media environment, including increased verbal rhetoric against the press by top government officials; encroachments on the independence of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the national broadcaster; and the passage of the Film and Publications Act in 2009.

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An additional looming threat revolves around the issue of media regulation. In July 2010, as part of a policy report on "Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity," the ANC revived proposals for a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal, answerable to parliament, which would be empowered to hear complaints against the press and hand out a range of punishments, including fines for defamation and violations of privacy rights. The independence of a regulatory body that is accountable to parliament is especially vulnerable to abuse in a country where one party dominates the legislature, as is the case in South Africa with the ANC. South Africa currently has a self-regulatory system for the print media, composed of a Press Council and Press Ombudsman, which is ironically held as an example of effective self-regulation on a continent where most such bodies remain under government control.

While the ANC argues that the existing system lacks teeth in terms of punishments for journalists and does not provide sufficient redress for citizens whose privacy has been compromised by irresponsible journalism, the Press Council has taken steps to address these concerns. Hiring additional staff and appointing a deputy ombudsman have led to complaints being processed in a timelier manner. An independent Press Freedom Commission made up of eminent South Africans was established in July with a mandate to examine the issues—including regulatory models found in other democracies—and its report is expected to be published next spring. In addition, modifications have recently been made to the press code that forms the basis for the ombudsman’s decisions, including strengthening provisions related to privacy and dignity, and adding clauses regarding plagiarism and the use of anonymous sources. While local journalists admit that press professionalism is a concern, they remain staunchly in favor of using self-regulatory mechanisms to address the issue, combined with additional training on standards and ethics for local and community journalists.

As noted in a recent special report by Freedom House on the threat posed by media regulation to press freedom, government attempts to introduce statutory regulation most often gain traction in countries where existing self-regulatory mechanisms are weak or nonexistent. The opposition shown by the media industry as well as by other civil society groups to the ANC’s proposals has been widespread, and ideally the reforms and deliberations already underway will be given a chance to work. Otherwise, South Africa’s hard-won freedom of the press could be systematically compromised.