While South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) discusses the party's proposal for a media appeals tribunal, delegates should take note of a landmark ruling in Nigeria this year in which a High Court judge declared a government-dominated press council unconstitutional.
Five months before the ANC's release of a discussion document referencing a special tribunal for the media, Justice A.M. Liman, a judge of Nigeria's Federal High Court ruled in favor of a petition challenging the constitutionality of the Nigerian Press Council, set up by decree during military rule in 1992. The press council membership of 19 included representatives from the media, the public, and the government. "In theory this is fine, but in practice the majority of these posts are appointed by the government, including the current chairman who is not a journalist. He is an accountant," said Newspapers' Proprietors Association of Nigeria President Ajibola Ogunsola.
In Nigeria, government pursuit of a statutory press council dates as far back as 1978, according to CPJ research, and has continued under the country's various military and civilian rulers. Gen. Ibrahim Babaginda, who is currently running as a civilian candidate in presidential elections scheduled for next year, issued the Nigerian Press Council Decree 85 of 1992 among other repressive edicts such as the Offensive Publications (Proscription) Decree and the Newspaper Registration Board Decree No. 43 of 1993.
Gbenga Adefaye, president of the Guild of Editors, said Babangida's regime sought to legislate every possible aspect of media activities. "There was a law to regulate advertising practice, a law to regulate broadcasting, filmmaking, and they also wanted to regulate the practice [of journalism]." In 1997, under the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha, then-minister of information Walter Ofonagoro threatened to set up a "press court" to charge journalists who "report untruths." In 1999, the administration of another military ruler, Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar, repackaged the registration Decree No. 43 as the Nigerian Press Council (Amendment) Decree No. 60, which threatened fines and jail time for non-compliant journalists. It was then that a coalition of journalists fought back. "As a result members of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, and NPAN refused to nominate members," according to Ogunsula.
In South Africa, ANC officials, including President
Jacob Zuma, have proposed a media tribunal "accountable to parliament"--a
chamber dominated by Zuma's party--and criticized South Africa's
self-regulatory Press Council and ombudsman. ANC officials
went as far as making claims that the proposed media tribunal would benefit South
Africans unable to afford civil libel lawyers. "Here,
[the poor] would have an institution to go to," Zuma declared
before parliament this month. In fact, the poor have
not been the target of the kind of press scrutiny that is devoted to the ANC
and the government. In his remarks, Zuma, whose personal scandals have filled
newspaper columns, appeared to allude to this. "We are concerned because a lot of pain has been
caused by how the media has been reporting on certain individuals in the
country." Similarly, press scrutiny has
led governments in Botswana
Most journalists and press freedom advocates believe--and the record of government-led
regulation of the media in Africa has proven--that allowing politicians to
regulate the press inevitably leads to political censorship of the news media. The
statutory press council in