• ANC pushes proposal to create state media tribunal to monitor, sanction press.
• Anti-media rhetoric heats up, tarnishing nation's image as press freedom leader.
25: Years of imprisonment for disclosing classified information, as proposed in the Protection of Information Bill.
On the defensive about high crime rates and reports of public corruption, the ruling African National Congress pushed back aggressively against a probing news media. As ANC leaders ratcheted up anti-press rhetoric, the government moved ahead with legislative proposals that would monitor and sanction the press, criminalize investigative journalism, and shield public officials from scrutiny. The ANC campaign tarnished the image of Africa's press freedom leader and raised fears that the country could backslide into apartheid-era censorship.
THE PRESS: 2010
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The ANC, in power since the end of apartheid in 1994, signaled its newly adversarial position toward the press in a July report titled "Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity." The document claimed that "a number of people" had been "victims of unfairness" by news media and were unhappy with "unsatisfactory decisions" from self-regulatory institutions such as the press council and press ombudsman. The report went on to drop a bombshell, proposing the creation of a government-run media tribunal to hear and act on complaints against the press. In an August letter to President Jacob Zuma, CPJ noted that "government-sponsored media regulatory agencies across Africa have been used time and time again as instruments of political censorship."
In remarks to parliament in September, Zuma cast the proposed media tribunal as a defender of the average citizen. "It does not infringe on freedom of the press, but it deals with the human rights of all citizens," he said, asserting that news outlets were defaming defenseless citizens. "Here, they would have an institution to go to." But CPJ research shows that South African press scrutiny typically focused on government officials and ruling party actions concerning public expenditures, crime, and good governance. In February, for instance, the Johannesburg-based daily The Star published stories contrasting the affluent lifestyle of ANC youth leader Julius Malema with his public advocacy of communist policies.
Despite widespread opposition, the ANC issued a statement in September saying it would move forward with the creation of the tribunal. Members of parliament were considering details of the plan in late year, leaving unclear the specific powers of the proposed tribunal.
The administration introduced a separate proposal that would undermine in-depth reporting. The Protection of Information Bill, introduced to parliament in March by Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, would effectively shield government officials from public scrutiny and criminalize activities essential to investigative journalism, according to CPJ's analysis. Under the bill, state agencies would have unchecked authority to classify public data as secret based on vaguely defined "national interest" considerations, according to CPJ research and legal experts. National interests would include such broad categories as "details of criminal investigations." The bill would place the burden on journalists to establish "public interest" to justify declassifying any information. Journalists and others found guilty of unauthorized disclosure of classified information could face up to 25 years in jail. Analysts said the legislation was more restrictive than a 2008 version that was itself seen as restrictive; the government withdrew that bill after encountering opposition.
The 2010 version came on the heels of several news reports that cited leaked government data showing wasteful spending and mismanagement, but Security Minister Cwele said, "We are not seeking to cover up corruption." In remarks to parliament in October, Cwele said the information bill would shield the state from what he called political and economic espionage. He resisted pressure to amend the measure to allow independent oversight of document classification.
Writing on the CPJ Blog in August, freelance journalist Thulani Ndlovu noted recent press revelations that government agencies had spent public money on luxury cars, prolonged stays in five-star hotels, tickets to major sporting events, and self-congratulatory advertising. Under the proposed measure, he said, such reports "would be kept secret in the interest of 'national security.'" ANC official Tokyo Sexwale said the proposals contradicted everything the party represented. "That the media should be fought, destroyed, that would be unconstitutional. That would be running against any value that [Nelson] Mandela stands for, that I stand for," he wrote in the Sunday Times in August.
ANC legislators were considering other measures that would curtail the work of journalists, said Raymond Louw, a leader of the South African National Editors' Forum. Among them was a proposal that would conflate reporters' phone calls and visits to newsmakers with harassment.
South Africa invested heavily to host the 2010 World Cup and project to the world an image of a tolerant, multiracial, and modern democracy. The June-July tournament was the largest sporting tournament ever to take place on the continent. But while the government spent an estimated 40 billion rand (US$5.8 billion) on stadiums and infrastructure, according to news reports, it faced domestic scrutiny over its performance on socioeconomic problems, including criminality and income disparities that ranked among the world's greatest. The World Bank described South Africa as a nation with "extreme differences in incomes and wealth."
In January, the government put tremendous pressure on a pair of television journalists who aired an interview with two self-described Soweto thieves to gauge their reaction to new anti-crime measures being imposed for the World Cup. An eTV spokesman said the interview was intended to provide insight into the criminal underworld and how it viewed the government's crime-fighting efforts. The interview subjects, who were masked, said they would not be deterred by police efforts.
Police immediately demanded that eTV News Editor Ben Saidi and reporter Mpho Lakaje reveal the identities and addresses of the interview subjects; when the journalists refused, prosecutors in Johannesburg issued subpoenas under the 1977 Criminal Procedure Act, a law typically used to compel uncooperative witnesses in criminal cases. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa accused the broadcaster of "protecting criminals at the expense of South Africans." As government pressure was building, the man who helped set up the interview, Lucky Phungula, was found dead in his home, the victim of a poisoning. Calling the death a suicide, police said Phungula left a note saying he feared being exposed.
The case against the journalists was eventually dropped pursuant to a 1999 memorandum of understanding between government agencies and the South African National Editors Forum, according to news reports. The memorandum calls for mediation in cases in which journalists are asked to testify in court.
Leaders of the ANC Youth League intimidated journalists writing critical stories about party activities. Isaac Mahlangu, a youth league official in Mpumalanga, sent a statement to the daily City Press threatening violence after the newspaper published stories alleging nepotism in the organization, according to news reports. "Our machine guns are ready," read the statement. In a subsequent interview with the African Eye News Service, Mahlangu declared that "the machine gun is hot and ready" for "campaigners who want to use the media to destroy ANC leaders."
In August, police officers seized Sunday Times reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika as he was looking into reports of corruption involving ANC officials in Mpumalanga province. Wa Afrika was detained on accusations of "fraud and defeating the ends of justice," and his reporter notebooks were confiscated, according to news reports. He was released on bail after a day in custody. But Ronald Ozzy Lamola, another youth league official, kept up the hot rhetoric, calling for wa Afrika to be charged with "treason" for "peddling lies."
The tone reflected increasing anti-press antagonism from the ANC Youth League and its leader, Malema, a brash 29-year-old known for stirring the frustrations of millions of poor, mostly black South Africans.In April, Malema expressed unconditional support for the president of neighboring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. Although South Africa's ANC-led administrations have led mediation efforts throughout Zimbabwe's political crisis, Malema castigated Zimbabwean opposition leaders in a press conference. He also expelled a journalist from the briefing. BBC reporter Jonah Fisher, one of several journalists attending the press conference at ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, was ordered to leave after challenging the ANC leader's criticism of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change, according to news reports. Malema had lambasted the party for maintaining offices in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Sandton. When Fisher pointed out that Malema was himself a Sandton resident, the ANC leader unleashed a series of insults, the mildest of which involved calling the journalist "a small boy." Asked why he expelled Fisher, Malema told reporters: "When we speak, you behave like you are in an American press conference? It's not America. It's Africa." In a statement, the ANC condemned Malema's behavior as "aggressive and insulting," according to news reports.