Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Drop the media tribunal if you want debate about the press

Thirty years ago this month, six security police arrested a journalism lecturer at Rhodes University. They held him incommunicado and interrogated him at ungodly hours. Seven months later followed a two-year jail sentence for membership and furthering the aims of the then-banned ANC.

In the sweep of South Africa’s repressive past, mine is a pretty minor story. But it resonates today because it’s suddenly no longer so historically remote.

Instead, this month saw similar heavy-handed treatment of a journalist. At least, unlike my own case, Mzilikazi wa Afrika of the Sunday Times was released from custody within days.

But the irony is that this abuse of a journalist happened under an ANC government and without a peep against it from the ANC people currently pushing for press control.

“Let the debate begin”, wrote President Jacob Zuma in the ANC newsletter last week, adding that there should be no holy cows.

But is it really a “debate” when media criticism mutates into threats of jailing journalists, and when the threats then create a climate in which a journalist is summarily arrested?

And when, on the Asikhulume programme recently, I criticised the suitability of Parliament as a body to pursue the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu responded derogatorily as if I had indeed violated a holy cow.

Like any South African, JZ has every right to speak out in favour of the ANC’s proposed tribunal. But perhaps it would have been more prudent for him to keep above the fray:

  • First, although he argues that the tribunal is not an individual issue, it is clear that he himself has a strong individual interest in controlling publicity about him.
  • Second, this is the person who as state president will have to decide whether legislation about a tribunal is unconstitutional and should accordingly be sent back to Parliament. But now the incumbent has nailed his colours to the mast.
  • Third, having the party leader state his position, it becomes very hard for ANC members to oppose this — thereby curtailing debate within the organisation.

But the tribunal issue oughtn’t to have been put forward as a debate in the first place.

We have a democracy, so why should anyone want to debate, rather than reject outright, a plan to expand coercive state power into the realm of the press?

If the ANC really wishes to debate media accountability, or media ownership, or media diversity, or media transformation, no problem.

Just take the statutory regulation threat off the table, and the discussion can flow. But the ANC wants this misguided proposal as part of a package deal.

President Zuma says he is “astonished” at our response to the tribunal. Actually, it’s astonishing that he is astonished. What did he expect when such a fundamental issue as press freedom is faced with extinction?

Did he really think journalists are turkeys who would cheer the prospect of a Xmas slaughter? Or that democratic forces worldwide would celebrate this retrogressive move as post-World Cup progress?

So who then is out of touch?

The point is this: there is nothing to debate here. Statutory regulation of the press is totally taboo because it is a recipe for governmental control of content.

It’s an agenda that the ANC is setting, and it is one that we should utterly reject. What the party seems to have forgotten is that when we shifted from the old South Africa to the new, we didn’t just change ruling parties. We also put limits on the power of the state.

Today the media (which the president hastens to remind us is unelected) has its freedom explicitly protected in the Constitution.

This means precisely that an elected Parliament does NOT have the power to create a body that will decide what newspapers may publish — and thence what the public may read. There are wise limits on state power.

In a speech last week, the president claimed that the press is not in line with the Constitution. The real truth is that it’s the tribunal that’s out of kilter.

Understandably, therefore, most South Africans don’t want to debate the disembowelling of the Constitution. For most of us, while the press has its problems, its freedom is intrinsic to democracy. The institution is certainly not an enemy that needs to be put under the control of a statutory tribunal.

However, the ANC seems to be spoiling for a fight over the issue. It is clearly a convenient diversion from much more pressing issues. So let’s not give it to them. Let them proceed as they seem determined to do.

In the process, let us also not legitimise the initiative for them. The ANC is proposing that Parliament will investigate its proposals, and that there will be public hearings. However, the Travelgate scandal showed that parliamentarians themselves sometimes have issues to hide from an unfettered press.

And more to the point, the ANC is of course the majority party in Parliament. So, whatever the public consultations, the party can still drive through its policy position. What follows then is a law which the president will sign it off.

It is at this point that a tribunal law can then be taken to the Constitutional Court. So, let’s encourage the ANC to bring it on, sooner rather than later.

If the issue drags on for a couple of years, who knows what appointments could be made to the court in the interim?

For now, then, there seems little point in entering a “debate” on an offensive issue foisted upon the nation, whose parameters are established in advance, and where the protagonists have the power and, seemingly, the will to push it forward regardless.

In short, opponents of the tribunal should avoid the siren calls to engage with the ANC on this initiative. Instead, what we should do is educate the wider public about what’s at stake: a shrinking of the information environment at the behest of political interests.

We need to hammer home that whatever else may be trusted about the ANC, no one should believe the party’s claims that the tribunal keeps press freedom intact.

In the short-term, when this attack on the press is declared unconstitutional, the ANC will face two routes:

  • It can try to change the Constitution by scrapping the media freedom clause, in which case a Zanu-fication will certainly have taken place. I don’t think the ANC would go that far.
  • The party can back down with honour, wisely return to its democratic roots, and we can all get on with addressing the real problems of this society.

So let’s get to the Constitutional Court pronto. It’s the one mechanism that we have to stop the ANC from straying so far from its original ideals and to help put the movement back on track.

  • Chico

    I have to say that I agree with those who wonder exactly what the press is supposed to have done that is so reprehensible. All we get from the ANC is general attacks on the press, with no specifics.

    The only exception has been that of the
    Tshabalala-Msimang. However, the matter was taken to court, and the Sunday Times was found to have acted within the law. If the ANC does not believe that the laws on privacy are strict enough, why not change those laws (within the constitution)?

    Furthermore, it is simply not true that the press is specifically anti-ANC. The press tends to take an adversarial (and indeed somewhat cynical) stance against all institutions that have societal power: political parties, religions and corporations.

  • David Brown

    @Siobhan Perhaps this was not so well thought about when the alliance was formed. Conflict of interest did not get dealt with in the transition leaving doors open for a national elite to find a way to the process. Were we not the useful idiots of a nationalist heist from the start. The ministers and represetatives quickly found their way to the trough went into denial of medical science withouta whisper and it was evident at an early phase. All the irrationalities of nationalism on display. We are mer fellow travellers disillusioned with a bus we were always on and as it heads for an accident all are still aboard perhaps?? The whining songs of the useful idiots or another day struggling for an imagined world- its difficult to say. Packing the courts is the next task of the nationalists. Fikile Mbalula and Malema crawling up Blade Nzimande’s leg and Zuma struggling to keep ahead of bad press stories.

  • Rob T

    Dave Harris keeps on harping that the local press tried to sabotage the World Cup. I don’t know which South Africa he lives in but the South Africa I live in the press were falling over themselves to promote the whole thing. Perhaps he got confused with the stupid English tabloids running stupid stories about how Brit tourists would be stabbed in the streets en masse.

    The one criticism of the Cup that the press did air was FIFA’s dictatorial control and the viability of the stadiums thereafter.

    Both are really not up for debate. FIFA IS a fiefdom ruled by cliques pandering to nothing more than corporate and capitalist interests. We paid for the WC and yet FIFA gets all the profit.

    The stadia ARE NOT viable. Only this week we’ve had the (ANC led) parliament hold committee meetings where they were somehow shocked to learn that not even the PSL can afford to use these stadia for fixtures without significantly raising prices for fans.

    Perhaps if they’d read the papers beforehand, who repeatedly raised the question only to be shouted down by various government and FIFA apparatchiks, they might have put some foresight into both the placement (a new stadium in Mouille Point, one of the most expensive suburbs in Cape Town) and cost not only of the venture but the future maintenance.

  • RubinB

    Come on, Dave Harris, list some of the things the press has lately done that you feel should have been suppressed. Please be specific.
    Please man, I have not had a good laugh in weeks!

  • Michael Liermann

    “Say these two words 108 times (thats what the monks in the East practice) and your memories will come back: “WORLD CUP”
    Maybe the numerous hoaxes, concocted interviews and spreading of crime hysteria will all come flooding back….LOL ”

    The handful of negative reports – most of them in the UK tabloids – serve the same function to you as a lamppost does to a drunk, don’t they? Keep trying, Harris.

  • Hanlie


    Saying the government should take control and provide leadership is a contradiction in terms. The government’s job is to lead, not control. It is the people’s responsibility to think for themselves, decide for themselves, work and uplift the society we live in. We are not sheep, we do not need a dog to guide us.
    In a perfect world where individuals take responsibility for their own lives, the government is merely an administrative body

  • Hein

    Comerades! Comrades! Please stop this bickering. Let us be positive about our great Democracy and examine our successes! Remember: Success breeds success! please allow me to list a few, and perhaps you will embrace the ideas of MAT and Protection of Information Bill more enthusiastically :
    1.We successfully defeated the Arms Deal anti-revolutionaries.Great benefit accrued to some Cadres and our beloved country’s image was kept intact.
    2.We enhanced our Freedom by disbanding the Scorpions. Now, together we can do much more.
    3.We have developed creative and innovative ways to spend our budgets.We are now world travelers and have financial interests all over the world.
    4.We have increased the Genie co-efficient to just about the highest in the world, and our country adjoins Swaziland, where one of the richest kings in the world resides.We pay financial homage to this great man.
    5.We have steadfastly supported our great mentor Robert Mugabe and assisted in building his glorious legacy.
    6.Our hospitals are spotlessly clean and we pay our nurses a whopping 0.00001% of a Ministerial salary.
    7.Our country offers opportunities for all! Even people with no grasp of woodwork or mathematics can become President.
    8.We have successfully kept a large proportion of our population illiterate. All they really want is to be able to make a cross on a ballot paper next to our name. We have a great army and police force to assist them with this….

  • Sheron Broumley

    this is great