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Government proposals threaten South African press freedom?

Journalists and schools scrutinize a new system of regulation

Attempts by the ANC in South Africa to introduce a new system of press regulation have stirred up fears that press freedoms and access to information will be unduly restricted. In this article, Herman Wasserman reviews the controversy and examines how schools of journalism have jumped into the fray. The result is robust public discussion on the role of media in the transitional democracy of South Africa.

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With the transition to a democratic South Africa after the demise of apartheid in 1994, key shifts in the regulation of the media took place to bring it in step with the spirit of an open society in which all its citizens can participate.

But there is still no consensus about what the media’s role should be. And  the relationship between media and the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), remains tense.

Without a strong opposition party to balance the power of the ANC, the media have often stepped into the role of a de facto opposition to government, extending their watchdog role to a default critical stance that can easily be seen as an antagonism.

export map of South AfricaFurthermore, the huge inequality between rich and poor in South Africa – the world’s most unequal country measured by the Gini coefficient – means that the public sphere is fragmented. The print media (with the exclusion of the very popular tabloid press) speaks mostly to an elite audience, with radio and television having a wider reach. Consequently, the print media are vulnerable to criticism that they serve minority interests and do not represent the public at large.

This situation has led to several clashes between the press and the government since the arrival of democracy in 1994, but the current standoff between the press and the ANC is arguably the most intense yet.

New Laws for the Press

Two recent developments in South Africa have widely been seen as representing a threat to the democratic freedom of expression. Journalists, journalism educators and civil society leaders have warned that proposals from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will at best lead to a chilling effect on journalism, and at worst reverse the freedoms that have been won since the end of apartheid.

First is a proposed Protection of Information Bill that could  reduce access to information, not only for journalists but also for citizens.  Under this Bill, documents relating to government  activities– e.g. government contracts, state-owned enterprises – could be classified as restricted information. Journalists and social  activists would not have access. Publication of restricted information would be punishable by a jail sentence.

Second is a proposed statutory Media Appeals Tribunal, suggested by the ruling ANC as an alternative to the current system of press self-regulation which the government sees as ineffective and biased towards the media industry.  With the advent of democracy,  many laws restricting press freedom during apartheid – especially strict during the two States of Emergency in the 1980s – were rescinded, making way for freedom of expression. This right, which includes freedom of the media, is now guaranteed in the country’s Constitution.

To balance this democratic freedom with responsibility and accountability, the press after 1994 instituted a system of self-regulation, overseen by a Press Ombudsman. The Press Council of South Africa hears complaints from parties who feel they have been offended by the media, and can order a publication to publish an apology – however it does not have the power to impose a fine.

The first salvos of this attack against self-regulation were fired in 2007 during  the ANC’s National Congress at the town of Polokwane in the province of Limpopo. The idea of a Media Appeals Tribunal was flighted there, but became dormant soon afterwards.  At the National General Council meeting in 2010, however,  the ANC passed a resolution stating that the existing self-regulatory system for the print media was ineffective. It  called on Parliament to conduct a public enquiry into a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal.

Since these initial statements, the ANC seems to have softened their stance, allowing the Press Ombudsman to embark on a process of self-reflection and reform by way of a series of public hearings around the country. These hearings were very poorly attended, drawing only a few representatives from the media industry and the public at large.

Journalists either did not know about the hearings (unlikely, given that most papers carried advertisements inviting people to the hearings), were overburdened with work so that they could not spare the time to attend, or just didn’t care.  It has been speculated that this poor showing might be taken as an indication of the poor support for the self-regulatory process among the public at large. Taken together, these developments can be seen as an alarming slide towards a media-intolerant environment in South Africa. The Media Appeals Tribunal in particular has been met with strong criticism from journalism practitioners and educators.

Journalism Schools Fight Back

In a show of solidarity, 20 South African Journalism Schools, led by Rhodes University, brought out a statement in September 2010, expressing fears about the effect of the proposed regulation on journalism in the country and their potential negative impact on students.

The statement noted that the South African media are not without fault.  One role  of journalism scholarship is to point to these shortcomings and suggest ways of improving the media’s democratic function.  Such critique, it went on to note, can only bear fruit in an environment that  “allows for unhindered investigation, the gathering of sound empirical evidence, and the free exchange of ideas.”.

Further support came from international colleagues. Prof.  Joe Foote, convenor of the World Journalism Education Council, an alliance of 29 organizations that represents journalism educators and trainers worldwide, wrote a letter asking President Jacob Zuma to reconsider the proposed Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal.

In their public statement, the South African Journalism Schools undertook to  research alternative ways of managing conflicts between media, state, business and civil society. Also, it would create spaces for debate between the public and members of the media industry about the media’s role in a democratic South Africa.

As a first step,  the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, hosted a colloquium on the topic “Media, democracy and transformation since 1994: an assessment.” The colloquium, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung fesmedia Africa programme, and the Open Society Foundation (South Africa), brought together journalism educators, scholars and researchers to make research-based interventions into the heated debates.

Politicians, policy-makers and public intellectuals also engaged with the academic papers. Several of the papers presented at this colloquium were submitted for peer review to the journal Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies and a selection will be published in the journal later this year.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary hearings into the Media Appeals Tribunal are set to continue.

There is little doubt that the tensions will continue and the debates will rage on.

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photo of Herman Wasserman

Herman Wasserman

Herman Wasserman is Professor and Deputy Head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. He has published widely on media in post-apartheid South Africa, including most recently a monograph, Tabloid Journalism in South Africa: True Story! (Indiana University Press). He edits the journal Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies.

 

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