Attacks on the Press 2002: South Africa

On September 27, in a landmark decision for press freedom in South Africa, a Johannesburg court dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Minister of Housing Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele against the independent daily Mail & Guardian and its former editor Phillip van Niekerk. Van Niekerk and the Mail & Guardian had been sued over the paper’s December 1998 “Report Card,” a survey of the performance of government officials, which found that Minister Mthembi-Mahanyele was performing her duties poorly. Citing several low points in the minister’s career, including a corruption scandal that emerged in 1997, the Mail & Guardian gave the housing minister a failing grade.

Even though the decision remained pending on appeal at year’s end, van Niekerk and other South African journalists believe that President Thabo Mbeki’s government is fighting a losing battle. “This ruling has extended the boundaries of press freedom in South Africa, bringing it more into line with South Africa’s Constitution, one of the most progressive in the world,” van Niekerk told CPJ. “This was an attempt by the government to harass the Mail & Guardian and silence criticism. If the appeal fails, a powerful weapon will have been removed from the government’s armory.” The decision to dismiss the lawsuit essentially overturned a 1975 decision barring the government from suing for defamation but allowing individual ministers to do so.

In March, President Mbeki’s government announced the creation of a U.S.-style presidential press corps–the first of its kind in Africa. The press corps would have privileged access to the president, including the opportunity to attend on- and off-the-recérd briefings and accompany Mbeki on official trips. The idea arose from a meeting between the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) and the government, during which SANEF raised concerns about the president’s accessibility.

Journalists greeted the idea with enthusiasm, until they were required to complete an accreditation application, prepared by the National Intelligence Agency, asking them if they had ever sought psychiatric treatment, suffered from alcoholism or drug abuse, been divorced, or slept with someone of the same sex. In April, Intelligence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu issued a statement expressing “regret” over the questions and ordered that all questions deemed “insensitive” be removed. An interim press corps committee was formed to work with government agencies to refine the security-clearance procedure and formulate a code of conduct. No significant progress had been made by year’s end, however.

In January, KwaZulu-Natal premier Lionel Mtshali appeared on Tim Modise’s morning radio show on SABC-Safm and declared that his province would supply the anti-AIDS drug nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women at public health facilities. Mtshali’s stance directly contradicted government requirements that the drug be tested at 18 designated pilot centers before public officials distribute it. Immediately after Modise’s show, prominent journalist and AIDS activist Anita Allen filed a complaint with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) accusing Modise of “sedition” and “supporting lawlessness” on the grounds that he had used his radio show to publicize public health policies that counter the government’s. The BCC cleared Modise of any wrongdoing in early April.

On August 20, police detained Kerr Hoho, a researcher in the Eastern Cape Province legislature who, for almost two years, had allegedly published Father Punch, an illegal pamphlet featuring gossip, criticism, and corruption allegations against top legislative figures. Hoho’s brief detention and subsequent 21-day suspension from work sparked a protest by the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union. Hoho’s suspension was lifted on October 21, but he was charged with 10 counts of “criminal insult.” In November, his lawyer asked the court to dismiss the criminal charges and filed a lawsuit against the legislature for 500,000 rands (US$ 55,800) because Hoho had been suspended before charges were formally filed against him. At year’s end, judges were still hearing arguments in the case.