JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In the old South Africa, journalists were censored, arrested and sometimes forced into exile when they tried to cover the anti-apartheid movement, including the banned African National Congress party.
Journalism has flourished since the end of apartheid in 1994, especially the country’s combative newspaper industry that regularly exposes corruption and government waste.
But now media watchdogs are sounding an alarm about a possible return to repression.
The ANC, in power for 16 years, is working to change South Africa’s media landscape by putting forward legislation that would curb the work of journalists. Its proposed Media Appeals Tribunal would replace the current system of self-regulation with a body that could prosecute journalists for inaccuracies and would be responsible to the ANC-controlled parliament.
Another hit to media freedom comes in a separate piece of legislation — the Protection of Information Bill — that would classify information deemed to be “in the national interest,” and make the publication of classified information punishable by up to 25 years in jail.
The outcry to this proposed legislation, coming on top of the arrest of an investigative journalist earlier this month, has been swift, sharp and verging on panic. Many journalists draw comparisons to the choking of a once-free press in neighboring Zimbabwe.
A declaration, signed by more than 30 of South Africa’s leading newspaper editors, appeals to the government and ANC “to abide by the founding principles of our democracy, and to abandon these proposed measures.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that the Protection of Information Bill’s “broad language and far-reaching provisions … is reminiscent of apartheid-era regulations since it would virtually shield the government from the scrutiny of the independent press and criminalize activities essential to investigative journalism, a vital public service.”
The Foreign Correspondents Association, representing foreign journalists in South Africa, reacted equally strongly. “A free and open press is one of the pillars of democracy and unfortunately there is little evidence of this on the African continent, other than in South Africa,” the association said in a statement.
Journalists are not alone in condemning the legislation. South Africa’s business community, including the head of a major supermarket chain, has complained that curbs to media freedom could hamper foreign investment in the country and negatively impact the country's competitiveness.
“In general, media control is not a principle that is aligned with sophisticated economies,” said the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Even the U.S. ambassador has weighed in, an unusual move for a foreign diplomat.
“America’s founders recognized that the best way to fight corruption and promote democracy in their new nation was through a free press,” Ambassador Donald Gips said in an address to the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg.
“We believe that, at the most basic level, governments are accountable to citizens, and democracy requires those citizens to make choices. A free press provides the information that permits the public to make informed choices.”
The Protection of Information Bill is currently before parliament, and the Media Appeals Tribunal will be discussed at an ANC national general council meeting next month.
South Africa’s media was downgraded from “free” to “partly free” on the Freedom House’s annual press freedom index for 2010, a reflection of several factors including “increased negative rhetoric against the press” by government officials, and infringements on the independence of national broadcaster SABC. There are now no African countries with a media considered to be free, according to the report.
Another incident fuelling fears over media repression is the arrest on Aug. 4 of an investigative journalist from a top South African newspaper. Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested on fraud charges, allegedly over a forged document that had been faxed to him. Wa Afrika’s arrest by a phalanx of police officers as he left the Sunday Times offices came shortly after he had exposed a dodgy property deal approved by national police chief Bheki Cele.
ANC cabinet ministers are frequent targets of newspaper investigations into corruption and misuse of funds, and President Jacob Zuma’s complicated personal life is also often the subject of media reports.
“The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian?” asked Zuma in a recent letter to ANC members.
At the same time as newspapers are coming under attack, a prominent business family with close ties to the ANC has said that it will launch a new ANC-aligned newspaper, The New Age — jokingly dubbed “The Zuma Times” by columnists.
An ANC discussion document that argues for regulation of the print media says that some newspapers have shown an “astonishing degree of dishonesty, lack of professional integrity and independence.”
“Some factions of the media continue to adopt an anti-transformation, anti-development and anti-ANC stance,” the document said.
Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party — which is allied with the ANC — has stated that the media is the greatest threat to South Africa's democracy.
But cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale has praised the South African media and its role in fighting corruption. He said the new legislation should not be a serious impediment to the press.
“I don't think there’s anybody who’s trying to push South Africa back to the dark ages," he told media in Pretoria last week. "We know where we come from and I think we are very cautious.”