Freedom of the press in democratic South Africa is a…

Rioting, looting, indiscriminate property damage and killings in Phoenix associated with July’s “attempted insurrection” resulting from internal fallout within the ANC have raised speculation about the proximity of South Africa South to become “another Zimbabwe” – a failed, lawless state.

The issue was heightened after Defense 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 veterans on October 14. .

And then ? Perhaps an announcement on SABC: “The Guptas, of Dubai, have been reinstated as leaders of South Africa and remain more committed than ever to sweeping economic transformation. Their local pawn will be reappointed as leader as soon as his medical parole and criminal record are cleared… President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet were deposed and banished to their new home on Robben Island in a coup without bloodshed.

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

Under apartheid, with a few brave exceptions, the media was reduced to a handmaiden to the ruling National Party. Those who failed to comply faced the full brunt of apartheid’s ruthless security apparatus.

On October 19, 1977, The world and weekend world newspapers were banned. The editor of The world, Percy Qoboza, who became editor of Municipal press in 1984, was taken into custody and held for five months under Section 10 of the Homeland Security Act at Modderbee Prison. In addition, the apartheid regime outlawed 19 Black Consciousness organizations and detained dozens of activists. This day is now commemorated in South Africa as “Black Wednesday” and is also marked as National Press Freedom Day” (History of South Africa Online: Home).

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

The government wanted the media to be less critical and more ‘patriotic’, which Jacob Zuma emphasized at the ANC conference in Bloemfontein in July 2008 when he said: ‘Newspapers now have almost 15 years to inform the public. Their actions do not reflect their words.

“Our observation is that they do not report on the progress made in the country. If you look at the columns and the pages, it’s sensational and it’s not balanced. When you read what smart people in the media write, you wonder if they are describing the organization you belong to.

“Newspapers distort the truth in their headlines. This causes damage. This is unfair reporting. Why shouldn’t the ANC create a newspaper to inform our fellow citizens?

We now know that the government didn’t need to go any further because the media run by Gupta (and government-funded from cash-strapped public companies), The new age and the television channel ANN7, have filled the gap as HMV (his master’s voice).

Journalism professor Jane Duncan argued that “there is an untransparent channeling of government advertising to support a media outlet that is now very clearly acting as a propaganda arm for the Guptas and support for the presidency and in return, The Presidency’s support for the Guptas.

In a candid assessment in 2020, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), or reporters Sans Frontières, an independent NGO in 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 “freedom of the press [was] guaranteed but fragile” in South Africa.

According to RSF: “A culture of investigative journalism is well established, but apartheid-era legislation and anti-terrorism laws are used to limit coverage of government institutions when the ‘national interest’ is deemed to be at stake. Game.

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

Moreover, it is “not uncommon for journalists, especially female journalists, to be mocked, insulted and even threatened on social media, sometimes by politicians or their supporters. The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party received a High Court warning in 2019 over its invective and hate speech against journalists.

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

Hopewell Radebe, acting executive director of the South African National Publishers Forum, expressed concern about attacks on journalists.

“We need to relaunch media freedom awareness campaigns to enlighten societies, especially in hotspots and protest areas, to respect the right of journalists to work freely.

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

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

Newspaper opinion pages remain a powerful site for setting the agenda and engaging with popular public opinion at a time when the space for democratic debate and dissent is increasingly restricted.

The news media can influence and control the allocation of resources, which can affect a better life for all, lead to the increase or decrease of socio-spatial inequalities, and promote and protect human rights – in other words, speaking truth to power.

Of course, the press is not above reproach. Errors were made and these were corrected through the appropriate structures, independent of state regulations. There is also unfair competition with social media – and fake news.

South Africa has run the gamut, with media censorship and oppression under apartheid, media freedom in the nascent democracy and, more recently, attempts to restrict access to information in the amid reports of growing corruption and controversial public decisions, which have implicated the ANC elite and soft entrepreneurs.

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

Contrary to its role in the liberation struggle, the new ANC Inc appears to be very scared, insecure and vulnerable, as it panders to tender entrepreneurs and well-connected venal politicians and officials who seem to loot state coffers in complete safety. impunity. .

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

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

Brij Maharaj is a professor of geography at University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes on a personal basis.

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