04 May 2011

Press Freedom Day: Monitoring Decline.

On 3 May 2011 the international community celebrated World Press Freedom Day. World Press Freedom Day marks the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of free press principles put together by African newspaper journalists in 1991. However, there are not many reasons to celebrate media freedom in the current political environment in South Africa. Below is a brief list of the top five reasons as to why South Africans should be reflective about press freedom at home.


AL2446_1668 Offset litho poster, issued by the Save the Press Campaign, (no date).

1. Ranking

South Africa has had a fairly sound history of press freedom since 1994. Our progressive Constitution has served as a sound constitutional basis for the support of media and its vital role in an active democracy. While our international rankings in relation to press freedom have always led the way in Africa, in 2010 South Africa dropped four places, to 38th place, in the Reporters Without Borders 2010 World Press Freedom Index (with Namibia standing as the top-ranked African country). One of the incidences noted to have affected our placing was the attack by ANCYL leader Julius Malema on a BBC correspondent - the journalist while being expelled from a news conference was labelled as a ‘bastard' and ‘bloody agent' by an enraged Malema.

2. The Protection of Information Bill

SAHA has repeatedly noted with concern the proposed Protection of Information Bill and has attempted to affect amendments to, and raise awareness about, the Bill through Parliamentary submissions and active involvement in the Right2Know Campaign (such support included organising a march in Johannesburg in 2010 in protest against the Bill). In spite of active civil society condemnation of the Bill, the Parliamentary Committee currently reviewing the Bill continues to fail to properly address the inadequacies in the Bill. While there are many listed issues, one of the most concerning for press freedom is the inclusion of criminal offences for the holding and distribution of ‘classified' material which can lead to prison sentences of up to 25 years. Further, in spite of the severity of these sanctions, government seems to be steadfast in its refusal to include a defence which would allow for the holding and publication of information in the public interest, which would protect journalists acting ethically.

To join the Right2Know campaign and receive regular updates on the progress of the Bill, click here.

3. Continued pursuit of the Media Appeals Tribunal

In spite of civil society discontent and international concern, the African National Congress still appears intent on pursuing a request for parliament to investigate the establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal for print media. The proposed tribunal would result in government more easily interfering in publications of the press and the information it gathers and publishes. The potential of this form of tribunal to then be replicated in other African countries, which look to South Africa for political guidance and may embrace any justification to suppress the media, is of great concern.

This intention is reflective in a more generalised antagonist relationship between government and the press. In the run up to our local elections, leading figures in the ANC have openly identified the media as "the opposition" they are most concerned about.

4. Abuse of journalists

Another key issue of great concern is the increasing level of abuse of the rights of individual journalists in South Africa. There have been a number of worrying incidents where journalists have been intimidated and arrested or threatened with arrest by members of the South African Police Service while doing their job. There was the overly dramatic armed arrest of Sunday Times journalist Mzilikiza Wa Afrika last year shortly after he helped release a story of abuses in tender processes by the police commissioner General Cele. A Durban journalist was arrested for not leaving the scene of a protest in 2010 and there were several physical attacks reported against journalists during the World Cup. The ANCYL have issued statements with personal attacks against individual journalists seen as ‘enemies', and there have even been reports of interference by the Crime Intelligence Unit (officers allegedly bugged Gcwalisile Khanyile's phone and tried to coerce another journalist from the Star newspaper into revealing information). Perhaps officials are taking their lead on how to treat journalists from President Jacob Zuma who has decided to sue the satirical cartoonist Zapiro for R 5 million for a cartoon published in 2008 - despite the dismissal of a complaint lodged by Zuma's supporters to the South African Human Rights Commission.

To follow developments in the case, and view the offending cartoon, visit here.

5. Anton Hammerl and the greater African problem

The abuse of South African journalists is not only occurring within our borders, but internationally as well. A South African photographer, Anton Hammerl, remains in custody in Libya after his detention by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi a month ago. Two vigils were held in Mr Hammer's honour by family and friends on World Press Freedom Day to raise awareness of his plight - a plight it is hoped will be met with all the necessary vigour to resolve the tragedy by the South African government. It should be noted that this is not the first case of the abuse of the human rights of South African journalists on the continent. For example, a Sunday Times Journalist, Nick Greyling, was kidnapped in Nigeria in 2010 (he was released in March of that year).

The Media Institute of Southern Africa has released a comprehensive study of media freedom in Southern Africa called "So this is Democracy?". To see extracts of that study, with particular focus on South Africa, visit here.

Moving forward: the vital role of media

The media has an unquestionable role to play in the advancement of democracy in South Africa and the continent. The riots in North Africa and the Middle East have shown the vital role being played by new forms of media (including social media) in the pursuit of democracy. The media also play a vital role in the prevention of corruption and exposing human rights abuses. South Africa should take note of WEF president, Erik Bjerager, who stated (speaking at a Press Freedom Congress organised by the Freedom for Journalists Platform):

"Freedom of expression is freedom to criticize, to disagree, to raise doubt and to question. This does not weaken a nation, it makes a nation stronger. Therefore journalists should not be harassed, detained, imprisoned or murdered. They should be thanked for their criticism, their disagreement, their doubts and their questions".