South African Press Freedom Under Threat

As a new freedom of information bill is making its way through South Africa’s legislature, Mark Silberstein looks at the history of press freedom and asks whether the ANC has lost its way.

The freedom of the press was central to the African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela during his presidency until the end of his term in 1999. Speaking at the International Press Institute Congress, 14 February, 1994 he stated: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials.” Yet, as the millennium drew in and a new reign of the ANC began, the party took a very different direction. Today it seems that the words of this speech might have become a testament only to the great man himself, as present leaders consider a controversial state information bill. The 2010 Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB) was created to replace the 1982 Protection of Information Act 84, a piece of apartheid legislation that was still a part of the South African constitution, dealing with pre-publication censorship issues.

“Secrecy Bill”

However, POSIB has quickly become known as the “secrecy bill” and has been described as draconian in nature by the South African and international press as well as by human rights organisations. One of the biggest issues with the replacement bill is the state’s definition of “national security” which clashes with media organizations’ views of the public’s right to knowledge and freedom of access to information in a civil society. Under the regulations of the bill, publishing what is considered to be a state secret is punishable by an up to 25-year prison sentence.

Currently the passing of the bill has been stalled due to controversy, and although POSIB has seen a lot of amendments since, many areas still cause concern as to how they might infringe upon press freedom and public access to information. According to the website of Right 2 Know, a South African campaign gathering opposition to the bill from 400 plus organisations, the ANC "reneged on their promise to remove “minimum sentences” from the bill's espionage clause 36, thereby forcing the courts to impose mandatory jail sentences of no less than 15 years, and up to 25 years, for offences that are so vaguely drafted that they can still be applied to legitimate acts of whistle blowing and disclosures of classified information that are genuinely in the public interest.” So what happened to the legacy of Mandela and his “critical, independent and investigative press” as “the lifeblood of any democracy?”

Colour Blind

As a child growing up in Cape Town during apartheid, when something like Mandela’s release from prison would have seemed like a pipe dream, I was raised to understand the oppressive and unjust system that gripped my country.  My family was involved with the ANC and I had an aunt in the Black Sash. My cousin Benjamin Pogrund fought to expose the horrors of apartheid and its racist regime as a journalist inThe Rand Daily Mail newspaper for 26 years. He accomplished this with vigilance and perseverance, amongst other things bringing the massacre in the Sharpeville township at the hands of the South African Police (SAP) to the world’s attention.

Yet it takes more than one to change a system, and it was the bravery of all the journalists of the Rand Daily Mail and newspapers like the Daily Dispatch, whose editor Donald Woods wrote editorials supporting the freedom fighter and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement Steve Biko, and a handful of other newspapers that made change possible. It was these individuals against all odds with their keen sense of justice that enabled the roots of a free press to grow in South Africa. The fight for this open press was won when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and the new South African constitution was enshrined with the rights of a democratic country in 1996.

During apartheid, many sacrifices were made in the battle for truth. One of the biggest was the closure of The Rand Daily Mail in 1985, after the state applied enough pressure on the owners to shut it down. The newspaper had been the vanguard of the free press movement in the country. Yet it did not end there, that same year some of its journalists started a new paper which was first called the Weekly Mail and later the Mail & Guardian, which, understandably, was baptised by fire from the very beginning. As Nicholas Dawes, the paper’s current editor told me in an interview about those start-up years: “There were constant legal battles to keep the paper on the streets and pages often had to be printed black, or with blacked out sections, to show the impact of emergency press restrictions.”

The Mail & Guardian became the first newspaper to have readers from all races, having taken a decision to remain “colour blind”. Dawes said: “We were of the new South Africa, before it had yet been born. The state could not regulate our intention to reach all South Africans or the enthusiasm of people of all races.” In 1994, when Mandela finally became the state president, the circulation of the newspaper doubled from 25,000 to 40,000-50,000 per week. With all these positive changes in the press, the horror stories of censorship in the dark days of the country should have been consigned to history books.

Same Old Tactics

However, in November 2011 the paper had to employ the same old tactics again, blacking out sections when writing about the present government. This was because the Mail & Guardian had a run-in with Mac Maharaj, a politician whom, during the struggle against apartheid, they would have been quoting in their censored paper. Maharaj is the presidential spokesperson for the ANC and has been accused of being involved in a clandestine arms deal with a French company that was worth 2.3m South African Rand (£167,000) between 1997 and 1999.

Maharaj threatened Mail & Guardian with the National Prosecuting Authority Act (NPA), another piece of legislation that concerns press freedom and the public’s right to know. The NPA answers to South Africa's justice department and the information about the investigation of Maharaj carried out in 2003 and obtained by the Mail & Guardian is confidential and not available for the public. If the newspaper’s journalists Brümmer and Sole, who wanted to publish the story based on the accusations, had done so, they would have gone to prison for 15 years. This, of course, meant that the paper had to tread carefully and in protest employed the old technique they learnt back in 1986. In this recent case, only the sections containing allegations and information on the Maharaj story were blackened out.

Interestingly, Mandela spoke about the role of the NPA in a speech in 2000, where he said: “Since its establishment, the NPA has promoted itself as ‘lawyers for the people’ […] to build an effective relationship with the community and to ensure that the rights of victims are protected. It is your duty to prosecute fairly and effectively according to the rule of law; and to act in a principled way without fear, favour or prejudice.” In the same speech Mandela said: “It is your duty to build a prosecution service that is an effective deterrent to crime and is known to demonstrate great compassion and sensitivity to the people it serves.”

The Young Guard

So things have changed from the original vision for the new South Africa and it is of no help when a lot of the newer generation of the ANC are turning a blind eye to the past. In 2011, while waiting to interview the head of the ANC abroad Xolani Xala, who moved to Europe at the age of 11 and started organising the congress in London in 2009, I spoke to one of the young blood in the party about Mandela’s overall role and vision for the ANC. He said: “It’s a different party but guided by the same principles, obviously there are different personalities and different people in the party […] Listen, there aren’t any other Mandelas. It was a different time and everyone had their place in furthering their struggles for the ANC.”

The response of the young ANC supporter was not surprising, as I had read about the current party members’ views on objections towards the POSIB. Xala himself was also vocal against any opposition to the bill. He said: “The conflict of interest is between politics and media. They should not be on the same level, because when a politician talks about the bill, and a journalist does, there is a conflict of interest. It is like a political party driving an agenda to a court and then [journalists] claim that this is a public agenda, but it’s not. It’s a political agenda because it has been driven through by politics.”

If what Xala says is true and journalists “should not be on the same level” as politicians, I wonder what he would he make of Benjamin Pogrund’s story about what was going on in the 60s South Africa. He told me: “There was a big anti-pass demonstration where thousands of women got arrested, and Nelson Mandela, who I knew a bit, was one of the lawyers on the case. They held these trials on the huge underground basement of the courts that they closed to the press. Because I had done a couple of years of law and knew something about the law, I went to see the chief magistrate. I barged in, I was a young reporter and I said this is not allowed, you can’t do it and unless you open the courts to the press I am going to the Supreme Court and get an interdict against you. It was a wild threat, but he knew it was wrong so the court was opened. Nelson was enormously impressed by this and years later when he was on Robben Island he wrote a letter to me. He couldn’t write directly to me as my name was known to the government, he referred to these episodes in the letter. It took about four or five months for it to get to me and that was the basis of a friendship based on trust.”

The road to a free press in South Africa was trodden by those few individuals and papers that were brave enough to put their lives on the line for truth, coupled with making the voices of the censored heard and working for freedom. But when a newspaper like the Mail & Guardian is reduced to employing tactics like blacking out information like they were forced to do back in 1986, we can see that they are the same people fighting a similar struggle as before. Yet if the POSIB goes through in its present state it would seem that the ANC has clearly forgotten its past and lost its way.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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