As South Africa celebrated Human Rights Day on March 21, the country was beset by uncertainty on the fate of media freedom and the ability of the press to report without state interference.
The government made moot a piece of information legislation in 2010 that media activists dubbed the “secrecy bill” for its vague and overreaching provisions that threaten to criminalize investigative journalism. Today, that bill is still being debated in parliament, and it is still anyone’s guess what the final product will look like.
The annual Human Rights Day celebration is an opportunity for the media to not only report on events honoring the progress made by South Africa since the fall of the apartheid regime, but it is also a critical occasion to highlight the uncertainty of media freedom looming on the horizon.
It is true that the South African media is one of the, if not the most, vibrant in Africa, operating within a constitution which guarantees freedom of expression encompassing press freedom. However, rhetoric toward the media has grown more hostile, and incidents of intimidation and arrests of journalists are on the rise.
The right to information and a free press is vital to the foundation of any democracy. Government accountability is checked through the press, and investigative journalism is a crucial element that unearths information the public has the right to know. The African National Congress (ANC) has long battled against the apartheid system’s muzzling of the press. The ANC was unequivocal in their support of a free press without government interference. Former South African Statesman Nelson Mandela articulated a clear statement on the ANC’s take on the media in February 1994, two months before he became president. “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy… It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen,” Mandela said.
Might the current ANC leaders have turned their backs on the principles that they themselves laid down? Time will tell.