|The administration of Jacob Zuma believes that elements of the South African media continue to take an anti-ANC stance and that the industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself [EPA]
South African journalists are gearing up for one of their biggest fights since the end of Apartheid as the government of Jacob Zuma seeks to push through legislation they say would curtail media freedom.
In a declaration published in the country's main Sunday newspapers, more than 30 prominent editors called on the government to abandon the planned legislation, which would allow it to classify any information on national security grounds.
The government's proposals include a new media law, the Protection of Information Bill, and the creation of a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT).
The proposed Protection of Information Billis intended to replace the 1982 Protection of Information Act and was first introduced in 2008. Then, widespread opposition led to its withdrawal, but many media observers say the 2009 version of the bill is even more restrictive.
Dario Milo, a South African media law specialist, says the bill has come back with a vengeance.
"The 2008 version was objectionable, but the new version is a lot harsher, with the introduction of criminal offences and minimum jail time legislated in the bill," he says.
"The new bill also has a very broad definition of national security and the mechanisms designed to limit the abuse of power [by the state] have been removed."
Under the new laws, it would be illegal to leak or publish classified information and doing so could result in a prison sentence.
Nic Dawes, the editor-in-chief of South Africa's Mail & Guardian, says that by allowing the government to classify any information it deems unsuitable for publication, the legislation would undermine South African journalism and democracy.
"It can shut down the free flow of information in a society with an open democracy and it effectively criminalises journalism because any one with classified information essentially becomes a criminal."
The press council of South Africa, which includes the press ombudsman and press appeals body, currently serves as a self-regulatory mechanism for the country's media, but the ruling ANC has argued that the media cannot be trusted to regulate itself.
If introduced, the MAT would be given powers to rule on media content and to impose penalties, including jail time, on journalists.
But, Dawes says it would be unconstitutional and that the media industry would challenge it in the courts
"Journalists make mistakes, but I don't think that MAT will solve these problems," he says. "We ought to strengthen the existing mechanisms which have already improved considerably."
Dawes insists that there have been significant improvements in the accuracy of the media's reporting and argues that the new legislation is really about a growing pressure within the ANC and its alliance partners to "control the way the government is represented".
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The ANC recently released a document entitled Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity,in which it argued that South Africa's print media has resisted transformation and diversification and called for the creation of a media tribunal.
The report built on a resolution passed by the ANC in 2007 at their 52nd National Conference, which recognised that while engagement with the media had improved, "much still needs to be done as factions of the media continue to adopt an anti-transformation, anti-development and anti-ANC stance".
The Zuma administration, with its promises of a pro-poor agenda, improved service delivery and job creation, has come under intense scrutiny over its spending since taking office in April 2009.
Dawes argues that Blade Nzimande,the minister of higher education and general secretary of the South African Communist Party, which is part of the ruling alliance, and Siphiwe Nyanda, the communications minister, support media restrictions because the print media have published scathing reports about their splurges on expensive cars and hotels since taking office.
Nzimande reportedly said that "journalists were looking for bad news out of the ANC and its alliance partners".
But while Janice Winter, the programme manager of the Axess Programme on Journalism & Democracy, alludes to the perception of the South African print media as categorically anti-government, she says legislation is not the answer.
"I think that there should be an open public discussion about the kind of media we want, and the kind of public we want and how that will best be developed. But heavy-handed legislation is not the answer. It is anathema to participatory democracy," she says.
Nzimande also reportedly referred to the press ombudsman as "toothless and useless" and claimed in The Times newspaper that self-regulated newspapers created an environment that posed a threat to South Africa's democracy.
This week, however, Joe Thloloe, the press ombudsman, told the Mail & Guardian that between August 2007 and July 2010, 62 per cent of the cases brought before the ombudsman by the government were ruled in favour of the complainant.
Fears of an impending crackdown on journalists were heightened on August 4 when award-winning journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested outside the Sunday Times offices and held for 48 hours while his home was ransacked and his computers, notebooks and mobile phone confiscated.
The journalist had initially been accused of being in possession of a forged resignation letter purportedly written by Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza to Zuma.
While the case was thrown out of court, Jane Duncan, the chair of the Highway Africa Media and Information Society at Rhodes University, says it is an ominous sign of things to come.
"The way they went about arresting him, including the show of force, arresting him at the office and then refusing to allow journalists to take photos was an attempt to intimidate," Duncan says.
But Winter points to the recent conviction of Jackie Selebi, the former police commissioner, for corruption and the role of the media in exposing his activities as evidence of the media's value.
"However inconvenient for the ruling party, it is precisely this kind of journalism that should be given as much freedom as possible to flourish for democracy's sake."