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Press freedom in democratic South Africa is a fragile concept

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Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.

Similar to its apartheid predecessors, ANC Inc is trying to invoke state security as a reason to limit access to information to the press (and therefore the public).

The riots, looting, wanton damage to property, and the murders in Phoenix associated with the “attempted insurrection” of July stemming from internal fallout within the ANC have raised speculation about how close South Africa is to becoming “another Zimbabwe” – a failed, lawless state. 

The question was reinforced after Defence Minister Thandi Modise, her deputy, Thabang Makwetla, and Mondli Gungubele, the minister in the Presidency, were held hostage for three hours by 56 disgruntled ANC military veterans on 14 October. 

What next? Perhaps an announcement on SABC: “The Guptas, from Dubai, have been reinstated as the rulers of South Africa and remain as committed as ever to Radical Economic Transformation. Their local pawn will be reappointed as leader as soon as his medical parole and prison record have been expunged… President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet have been deposed and banished to their new Robben Island abode in a bloodless coup.”

The independent judiciary, which is under increasing pressure from the beneficiaries of corruption, and the free news media, which plays a critical role in exposing this venal elite, are the difference between South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

Under apartheid, with a few courageous exceptions, the media was reduced to being a handmaiden of the ruling National Party. Those who did not comply faced the full force of the ruthless apartheid security apparatus. 

On 19 October 1977, The World and Weekend World newspapers were banned. The editor of The World, Percy Qoboza, who became the editor of City Press in 1984, was taken into detention and held for five months under section 10 of the Internal Security Act in Modderbee Prison. Further, the apartheid regime declared illegal 19 Black Consciousness organisations and detained scores of activists. That day is now commemorated in South Africa as “Black Wednesday” and is also marked as National Press Freedom Day” (South African History Online: Home). 

In democratic South Africa press freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution. However, all is not well and there have been threats against the media from within the ruling ANC government, as well as other politicians. 

The government wanted the media to be less critical, and more “patriotic”, and this was emphasised by Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s Bloemfontein conference in July 2008 when he said: “Newspapers have by now had almost 15 years to inform the public. Their actions do not reflect their words. 

“Our observation is that they do not inform on progress in the country. If you look at the columns and pages, it is sensational and it is not balanced. When you read what the clever media people write, you wonder whether they are describing the organisation you belong to.

“Newspapers twist the truth in their headlines. It causes damage. It is unfair reporting. Why should the ANC not start a newspaper to inform our citizens?”

We now know that there was no need for the government to proceed further because the Gupta-managed (and government-funded from cash-strapped SOEs) media, The New Age and the ANN7 TV channel, filled the breach as HMV (his master’s voice). 

Jane Duncan, professor of journalism, argued that, “There’s a non-transparent channelling of government advertising to prop up a media outlet that is now very clearly acting as a propaganda arm for the Guptas and the support for the Presidency and in return, the Presidency’s support for the Guptas.” 

In a candid assessment in 2020, Reporters sans frontières (RSF), or Reporters Without Borders, an independent NGO, with consultative status with the United Nations agency Unesco (which has an explicit decree to promote “the free flow of ideas by word and image”), concluded that “press freedom [was] guaranteed but fragile” in South Africa. 

According to RSF: “An investigative journalism culture is well established, but apartheid-era legislation and terrorism laws are used to limit coverage of governments institutions when ‘national interest’ is supposedly at stake. 

“The State Security Agency spies on some journalists and taps their phones. Others are harassed and subjected to intimidation campaigns if they try to cover certain subjects involving the ruling African National Congress (ANC), government finances, the redistribution of land to the black population or corruption.”  

Furthermore, it is “not unusual for journalists, especially women journalists, to be mocked, insulted and even threatened on social media, sometimes by politicians or their supporters. The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party was given a high court warning in 2019 because of its invective and hate speech against journalists.”  

According to RSF, in “2020, the coronavirus crisis did not spare journalism in South Africa, one of the African countries that were hit hardest by the pandemic. Rubber bullets were fired at a reporter covering compliance with lockdown measures and a community newspaper editor even had to flee abroad after being threatened by the police for covering a lockdown-related story. This was unprecedented for a South African journalist since the end of apartheid.” 

Hopewell Radebe, the acting executive director of the South African National Editors’ Forum, was concerned about the attacks on journalists.

“We must resuscitate media freedom awareness campaigns to enlighten societies, particularly in hotspots and protest areas, to respect the right of journalists to work freely. 

“Journalists continue to be harassed by our law enforcement agencies, the SAPS in particular, not as an official government position, but individual officers whose actions are too common and consistent,” Radebe said.

According to Sustainable Development Goal 16.10, the government is committed “to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”. 

The opinion pages of newspapers remain a powerful site for agenda-setting and engaging with popular public opinion in an era when the space for democratic debate and dissent is increasingly being restricted.

The news media can influence as well as monitor the allocation of resources, which can affect a better life for all, lead to increased or decreased socio-spatial inequalities, and promote and protect human rights – in other words, speak truth to power.

Of course, the press is not beyond reproach. Mistakes have been made and these have been corrected via the appropriate structures, independent of state regulation. There is also unfair competition with social media – and fake news.

South Africa has been through the entire gamut, with media censorship and oppression under apartheid, media freedom in the fledgling democracy, and more recently, attempts to restrict access to information amidst reports of escalating corruption and controversial public decisions, which have implicated the ANC elite and tenderpreneurs. 

The ANC government is not the guardian of press freedom. The press freedom enjoyed in South Africa is a product of a long period of contestation during the apartheid era, during which many courageous journalists were intimidated, incarcerated and tortured. 

In sharp contrast to its role in the liberation struggle, the new ANC Inc  seems to be very afraid, insecure and vulnerable, as it panders to tenderpreneurs and well-connected, venal politicians and public servants who appear to be looting the state coffers with impunity. 

It is also likely that editors and journalists will come under increasing state surveillance. Similar to its apartheid predecessors, the ANC Inc is trying to invoke state security as a reason to limit access to information to the press (and therefore the public). 

Given the hegemonic dominance of one party, the role of a critical, free press becomes more imperative in promoting transparency and democracy, and demanding public accountability. DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity.

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  • interesting comment. as a member of the media I can only smile at the ANC especially its cabinet ministers, namely Higher Education and Employment and Labour who do not respond to critical questions and wonder why they get a one sided view. of course Zuma making comments about press freedom is a contradiction in terms considering he screwed South Africa up! the media is not going anywhere anytime soon and ANC and other political parties had better get used to the idea. portfolio committees who do not respond to questions also need to take heed. we are still waiting for a response to the damning report “Money down the Drain – Corruption in South Africa’s water sector.” published in March 2020 by Corruption Watch and Water Integrity Network. the ANC before pointing fingers at others should look at the three pointing back at them!

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