Attacks on the Press 2003: South Africa

South Africa has the more diverse and sophisticated media on the continent. Although freedom of the press is enshrined in the constitution, a number of old laws that restrict freedom of expression remain on the books. For example, the publication of information on police and security forces is restricted, and the Criminal Procedure Act can be used to require a person to reveal sources of information to a judicial officer or face imprisonment.

Journalists and media lobby groups have expressed fears that the Anti-Terrorism Bill, now under consideration by Parliament, could be used to bring journalists before investigative hearings and force them to tell what they know about any “terrorist organization.” Journalists also said that the proposed law’s definition of terrorism is too broad and could be open to abuse.

South African journalists criticized President Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” approach to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. They lambasted his failure to take a more active stance against the Zimbabwean government’s repression of the press. Journalists were dismayed that the South African government offered no criticism when Zimbabwean authorities closed the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only private daily newspaper, in September.

In October, a government-appointed commission of inquiry headed by a retired former judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal, Joos Hefer, issued a subpoena to four journalists, including Ranjeni Munusamy, a former writer for the weekly newspaper Sunday Times. The commission wanted the journalists to reveal their sources for reports that the African National Congress (ANC) had investigated National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka as an apartheid spy.

Munusamy, backed by media organizations, challenged the subpoena on the grounds that it violated press freedom and the constitution. But the High Court ruled that since Munusamy had written the article that led to the establishment of the Hefer Commission, she was a primary source and the commission had a right to know how she conducted her investigations. Munusamy vowed to take her case to the Constitutional Court.

In December, however, Hefer withdrew subpoenas for journalists to testify, saying he believed that Munusamy’s testimony was of “peripheral value,” and that her appeal to the Constitutional Court could unduly delay the work of the commission. Media organizations welcomed the decision.

Munusamy still plans to take her case to the Constitutional Court. According to her and the media groups that support her appeal, a favorable ruling recognizing a constitutional right for journalists to refuse to testify on professional grounds would be extremely important for South Africa and the entire continent.

Allegations of internal censorship at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) drew protest from civil society and the media. An internal SABC memo leaked to the press in August told station managers not to discuss politics outside the designated current affairs programs, especially in relation to allegations that Deputy President Jacob Zuma tried to bribe a French company in connection with a large arms deal. SABC denied that it was trying to gag its presenters and said it would investigate the memo. According to press freedom monitors, SABC did not introduce a news blackout of the Zuma investigation.

Although the ANC has done much since taking power in 1994 to reverse the policies of white rule and instill a culture of democracy, much of the black population still lives in poverty. The role of media in black empowerment remains a focus for debate as the country prepares to celebrate 10 years of freedom from apartheid. White-owned companies dominate the country’s printed press, with only a small percentage of newspapers under black management. The press has also been seeking to consolidate through mergers and acquisitions to stay commercially viable. The picture is different in the broadcast sector, where the government has been able to foster black owner–ship through licensing policies. Deregulation has led to a mushrooming of radio stations, including many small community stations. Many of these, however, are struggling financially.

In 2003, the Media Diversity and Development Agency (MDDA) was launched, aimed at redressing some of the imbalances in the media sector through financial and technical support. The MDDA is a joint initiative between the government and the private sector funded by the government and the media industry. The bulk of the MDDA’s support is expected to go to community radio stations, but it will also fund small commercial media projects. Media organizations have generally welcomed the creation of the MDDA but stressed that at year’s end, the organization had not yet started operating. “It remains to be seen how fair the MDDA decision makers will be in allocating grant funding,” said Tusi Fokane of the Media Institute of Southern Africa.