President Zuma in parliament. (AP/Nic Bothma)
President Zuma in parliament. (AP/Nic Bothma)

In South Africa, a new struggle for press freedom

The South African media is facing its fiercest battle yet with the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), over the boundaries of freedom of expression in the 16-year-old democracy. On August 8, 37 senior members of the media issued a declaration decrying recent moves on the part of the ANC to potentially restrict the media’s ability to report freely. The Auckland Park Declaration was published shortly after a war of words erupted over a media tribunal proposed by the party.

The “Media Appeals Tribunal” came to light in a recently published working document prepared for the ANC’s National General Council meeting next month. Designed to “strengthen, complement and support the current self-regulatory institutions (Press Ombudsman/Press Council) in the public interest,” the tribunal is envisioned as a “statutory independent institution, established through an open, public and transparent process, and be made accountable to parliament.”
The decision to look into a tribunal was first made at the party’s National Conference in 2007 and quickly died amid criticism. Its reprisal as an idea for debate has come at a worrying time. Members of the media, civil society and media activist organizations are already protesting legislation that could potentially place restrictions on reporting. Of particular concern is the Protection of Information Bill, currently being considered by South Africa’s parliament. The bill very broadly defines notions of national security, and does not set aside an exemption for the reporting of classified information in the public interest. Particularly at risk is the quality of investigative reporting, which has a long and vibrant tradition in South Africa–a tradition that the ANC says it fought for and respects.
“We vigorously oppose the restrictive clauses in the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed media appeals tribunal,” reads the declaration by South Africa’s leading editors. “We appeal to the South African government and the ruling ANC to abide by the founding principles of our democracy, and to abandon these proposed measures.”
In addition to the proposed tribunal, the ANC’s working document on the media also discusses concerns over a lack of transformation, as well as the lack of diversity in ownership in the media industry. Although journalists agree that these are important and valid concerns, the proposed tribunal has become a major sticking point between the two parties, and is seen by some journalists as illustrative of a growing intolerance towards the media.
The ANC contends that the current system of self-regulation (overseen by the Press Council of South Africa and its press ombudsman) is ineffective, takes too long to issue rulings, and requires great expense if the complainant wishes to go to court. This leaves lower-income citizens few opportunities to pursue damages for defamation or other reporting ills. The ANC has called the ombudsman “toothless” in its inability to issue punitive rulings that will deter irresponsible reporting.
But journalists are unsure as to why the ANC is not looking into improving the capacity of the Press Council; instead suggesting a new tribunal to “complement” the work of the ombudsman. Although they say that such a tribunal would be independent of government and free from political control, the proposed tribunal would have to answer to South Africa’s parliament, whose members are overwhelmingly from the ruling party.
“It is a big leap from acknowledging [the media’s] issues and problems as important for discussion and debate, to saying the right solution is a statutory tribunal,” said academic and veteran investigative journalist Anton Harber at a recent panel discussion hosted by the country’s weekly investigative paper, the Mail & Guardian. “The central point,” says Harber, “is that you can’t say ‘I support media freedom and I believe that we should give statutory power to a government to determine what journalists may or may not say. … These are fundamentally contradictory positions.”
The tribunal and legislation impacting on freedom of information is “making impossible what should be a very necessary dialogue” on improving the media, said Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press. Haffajee is requesting that the tribunal be “taken off the table” and that the Protection of Information Bill be slimmed down before dialogue on the media can begin.
The tribunal has received support from several members of the ANC, including President Jacob Zuma who wrote in a letter for the party’s online newsletter that “[the ANC has] a responsibility to democratize every aspect of South African society including the media. It is our historical duty.” This stance, in addition to the comments of controversial ANC Youth League president Julius Malema who describes the media as thinking they are “untouchable,” makes it hard to imagine how a constructive debate over improving South Africa’s media without undue political interference can take place. Nevertheless, to at least one ANC leader, the consequences of going too far appeared to be clear: “That the media should be fought, destroyed, that would be unconstitutional. That would be running against any value that Mandela stands for, that I stand for,” ANC official Tokyo Sexwale told the Sunday Times.
Jackie Bischof is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa and writes on the South African media for