South Africa’s diverse and sophisticated news media are rarely targets of violence, and journalists say they are largely free to move around the country and criticize authorities. But press freedom groups are concerned that new antiterrorism legislation will impede investigative reporting and compromise the independence of journalists.
The African National Congress (ANC), in power since the end of apartheid in 1994, retained control in April’s general elections. Parliament subsequently re-elected President Thabo Mbeki to a second five-year term. Local press freedom monitors say the media were unimpeded in covering the vote.
Following the election, the government reintroduced antiterrorism legislation that had been shelved because of protests from civil liberties groups. The Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities Act was passed by Parliament in November and at year’s end awaited only the president’s signature. Press groups were alarmed by provisions compelling all citizens, including journalists, to report to authorities the presence of any suspected terrorists or any information that may be related to terrorist activities.
Press groups and opposition parties complained that state broadcaster SABC, whose board is controlled by government supporters, had abused its public-service mandate by favoring the ruling party in its news coverage. In January, SABC provided live coverage of an Mbeki speech launching the ANC’s election platform. Opposition parties were not given the same opportunity, according to the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute. SABC denied bias and said that Mbeki’s speech was a matter of public interest.
The ANC and 92 of its serving and former members of Parliament threatened to sue the private daily newspaper ThisDay in September after the newspaper reported the names of people allegedly linked to a parliamentary probe into the misuse of travel vouchers. ThisDay Editor Justice Malala described the threatened lawsuit as “nothing but bullying on the part of the ruling party.” Other journalists raised similar concerns about what they perceive as increasing government hostility toward the press. ThisDay was forced to close in October because of financial problems unrelated to the threatened lawsuit.
Mbeki has been heavily criticized in the South African media over his unwillingness to take a high-profile stand against human rights and press freedom abuses in neighboring Zimbabwe. Mbeki is considered one of the few people who could influence Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, owing to the connections between the two countries and their leaders. Mbeki believes that his policy of “quiet diplomacy” is the only way to end Zimbabwe’s crisis, the government said in October.