A group of prominent journalists is accusing the South African government of bringing back apartheid-era press laws that could undermine democracy. The African National Congress (ANC) government is proposing new laws to regulate the media. But the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says the changes would curb the media to such an extent that they would undermine fundamental democratic freedoms.Raymond Louw from South Africa’s Press Council says the nation’s media feels as though it is under assault. “We’re heading to the state of Gambia where there are two editors, I think, in prison for having published ‘false news’, which is decided by the government what is false news,” he said.”And two editors have been killed – assassinated. My impression is that what we’re heading for is the kind of state where we want to criminalise information and we want to put editors behind bars.”
The ANC fought for media freedom during the apartheid era, but after 16 years in government it wants to introduce a media tribunal. ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu says the aim is to make the press more accountable. “We need stronger measures where indeed people have been defamed, where indeed malicious intents have driven reporting by media houses or reporters,” he said. But Mr Louw says the ANC’s claims are hard to believe. “I really find it extraordinary that there are these generalised complaints against the media and against the press ombudsman system without any specifics ever being brought to the fore,” he said. “I haven’t seen one case before the Press Council, before the Press Ombudsman, which reflects a complaint about malicious reporting.” The media is concerned the government is cracking down on press freedom in response to ongoing investigative reports that have exposed widespread government corruption. The ANC’s alliance partner, the South African Communist Party, says journalists are the greatest threat to democracy. Party spokesman Malesela Maleka says the nation needs “a legal environment that allows our democratic institutions not to be abused by anyone”. “In cases where there could be abuses, that information should be accessible for the abuse to be exposed,” he said. Further media restrictions include new laws that would deem certain material classified, making it illegal for a journalist to publicise potentially sensitive government information.
A slippery slope
Former journalist Sej Motau, from the opposition Democratic Alliance, says the restrictions set a dangerous precedent. “If we go with this statutory tribunal, we are down on the slippery slope to nowhere,” he said. “That will be compounded by this protection of information. You don’t protect information by making it secret; you protect information by airing it. The more people know about it, the more our democracy gets strengthened, the more we are able to move onto the things that we want to do.” Mr Motau says letting bureaucrats decide what information is classified is a risky move. “We fought very, very hard to have information, and that’s freedom,” he said. “If we go this route we will be killing freedom in this country. It’s not about journalists; it’s about every one of us in this country, and I’d like to appeal to the people of this country. If we fall asleep on this one, and we think, ‘Oh no, it’s only about the journalists’, we’re making a big, big mistake.” The government is determined to enforce some media controls, which ensures that a fierce battle lies ahead for South African journalists.