Is this the beginning of the end of press freedom in SA?
JOHANNESBURG – First a furore erupted over the tabling in parliament of an information bill that seeks to establish a media tribunal answerable to the South African parliament. While tongues were still wagging, a Sunday Times journalist who broke the tender scandal expose on police commissioner Bheki Cele was arrested. Then President Jacob Zuma joined the fray to support the ANC position in the media freedom debate. SA has set itself apart as a bastion and epitome of tolerance and liberalism in Africa and the world over. But political pundits are seeing a gruesome forewarning in the recent events and ongoing debate around media freedoms in the light of the ruling ANC’s determination to go ahead with proposed reforms. And given the now-international nature of the row, the ANC is worried it might be perceived as being opposed to press freedom, crafting the Protection of Information Bill as a mere pretext for a media clampdown. This week the party and police boss Cele assured the media that they were not out to clamp down on their freedom. Two separate meetings in Johannesburg followed a public outcry about the arrest last week of Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika and the ANC’s proposals on media regulation. Cele, who met editors behind closed doors at the SA National Editors’ Forum offices, said the police will continue to talk to media houses about how to improve working relationships between journalists and the police. Soon after the meeting, Cele said the discussions with editors were “robust”. He said he had asked for the meeting with editors to ensure that reporters reported accurately and factually. ANC spokesman and drafter of the discussion document on the media, Jackson Mthembu, said the proposed media appeals tribunal must not be seen as an instrument for punishing the media. He said the outcry over the tribunal was one-sided and exaggerated. “In whatever we do, there is no interest on the part of the ANC to limit the freedom that all of us enjoy, including the press,” he said. “Your reaction (the media’s), as opposed to the reaction of the ordinary man and woman, was different. Ordinary people agree [with us].” Mthembu said the media’s reaction was not helpful. “You just want us to drop the issue,” he said. Mthembu’s discussion document deals with media transformation, ownership and diversity. He said it was unfortunate that the media were “fighting” one aspect of the document: the media appeals tribunal. He said the way in which the media regulated itself must be open to debate. Mthembu said the tribunal would “strengthen, complement and support” the Press Ombudsman, and punitive measures were needed to stop “the cycle of offences” committed by the print media. But not everyone agrees. Many are seeing the whole setup as the genesis of a new era in SA. Even former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils called on the government to rethink the controversial bill and the ruling party’s proposal for a media tribunal that reports to parliament. In an interview with Talk Radio 702, Kasrils said the government must fight a tendency among ministers to clamp down on transparency and “improve” the bill that is seen as an attack on media freedom and a return to apartheid-era repression. He took aim at Cecil Burgess, the chairman of the ad hoc committee handling the bill, as well as parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence, for saying South Africa was going overboard in pursuit of openness. “Let’s hear critique of the bill and let’s improve it,” he said. Kasrils said the government must go back to the drawing board and include safeguards to protect the media he insisted on working into the bill when an earlier version was drafted on his watch. Even within the ANC itself, there is a feeling among some party bigwigs that the recent state-initiated moves on the media are unconstitutional and counterproductive. One such voice has been human settlements minister and respected businessman Tokyo Sexwale. Sexwale said on Wednesday that fighting and destroying the media would run “against any value that [Nelson] Mandela stands for, that I stand for”. Sexwale told a Discovery Invest Leadership Summit in Johannesburg that Mandela’s style of leadership speaks about the freedom of expression, but, most importantly, also the freedom of the media. Sexwale said “a lot of heat” had been generated around the subject of politics and the media in the past few days, adding that a perception had slowly emerged within SA society that there is a war between the government — or perhaps the ruling party — and the media in general. Such perceptions tended to become reality if not countered, explained or dealt with, the minister said. Nor have international voices been left out of the debate. The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) on Wednesday sent an open letter to President Zuma urging him to address the press freedom concerns. The IPI is a global network of publishers, editors and leading journalists. In the letter, IPI interim director Alison Bethel-McKenzie expressed deep concern over “recent moves which we fear will endanger the independence and vitality of the South African media”. She said they believed that plans for a government-appointed media appeals tribunal, as well as a draft Protection of Information Bill, if enacted, would endanger the SA media and thereby threaten the people of SA’s right to information and rigorous political debate. The proposed tribunal came despite the fact that a system of self-regulation was already in place through the Press Council, in the form of a Press Ombudsman and an Appeals Panel. The current Press Council had proved its independence and had frequently ruled in favour of ANC and public officials, forcing newspapers to print embarrassing retractions and corrections — the ultimate sanction for a business that depended on its consumers’ loyalty and trust. The current Press Council was inclusive, and both journalists and public representatives sat on the adjudicating panels. Bethel-McKenzie said any MAT would not be independent. “If the MAT is appointed by parliament, it will face an inherent conflict of interest that will skew its rulings in favour of public and party officials and essentially amount to government oversight of the media, which is unacceptable,” she said. The call for a MAT coincided with consideration, by the National Assembly, of the Protection of Information Bill. The bill, which aimed to regulate the classification of secret state information, also contained a number of provisions that would damage investigative journalism in SA. The bill provided for a very low threshold for classifying information, but at the same time imposed draconian penalties on those who revealed that information, without providing for a public interest defence. Under the draft law, officials who abused their authority to classify information might be punished with a fine or up to three years in jail. Those who exposed such information, however, would be penalised with between five and 25 years in prison — an unfair penalty system that encouraged secrecy and could lead to the erosion of investigative journalism. Bethel-McKenzie said the media played a fundamental role in safeguarding democracy by holding elected officials accountable to the people. Whatever happens, it’s a tad early to say that SA’s gigantic democratic institutions are already in ruins.