In a dramatic turnaround, South African journalists have welcomed the proposed changes to the Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal, as vetted by the national government last month. The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) hosted a press conference in Pretoria on Tuesday issuing an apology for the initial “hysterical” reaction to the proposed tribunal.
“We want to apologise for the manner in which this issue has been exaggerated in the press,” said Mondli Makhanya, chairperson of Sanef. Makhanya owed the initial hysterical outcry in the country’s media to a deep-seated ignorance of working African democracies. “We implore our colleagues in the media to be more responsible in their criticism of the bill.” Makhanya, a former editor of the Sunday Times and nemesis of cowboy columnist David Bullard added that after rigorous debate within the forum, the editors unanimously agreed that the proposed tribunal, which could result in journalists being imprisoned for mistakes, “to be not only acceptable, but absolutely necessary for an emerging economy like ours”.
“Let’s face it, we saw how great our country could be during the World Cup. There were happy stories on the front pages, bronzed, Brazilian tourists in Sandton and an international sporting event on SABC television. South Africa was more liveable, it was more exciting and there were no poor people anywhere. This was only achievable through Fifa’s own draconian media legislation that forced us to focus on only the good angles to every story. It has proved to be an eye-opening experience for the practice of journalism in South Africa.”
Makhanya further added that South Africa needed a media that would help disguise its problems and rid itself of Afropessimism. “We understand now that this is the legislation we’ve been searching for all our lives.” The proposed Protection of Information Bill would make it illegal to leak or publish classified information effectively ruling out South Africa as a safe haven for Wikileaks chief Julian Assange. A key aspect of the bill is an extension to the widely-held definition of “national security”.
The bill will bring with it a new understanding of “national security” allowing government to classify all information under this category thus barring the media from publishing it. After initially raising the ire of the country’s journalists, it appears members of the media have now reconciled with its eventuality. “Look, we need to be realistic. This is Africa after all,” remarked Makhanya.
Sanef’s altered stance has come as no surprise to experts. “The fact that only small media houses, like the New York Times, The Global Post, and Al Jazeera covered the issue indicates that the international community hardly regards this as a serious threat to South Africa’s democracy,” said Guy Berger, media activist and academic.
Berger, a prominent columnist and blogger, described journalism as a “dynamic career”. “Yes, by censoring anything worth reporting the bill strips journalism of its ability to challenge the centres of power. This is true, but journalists will have to just find other things to write about. “They can write about the weather,” added Berger, “the subterfuge of global warming should be a core concern of the South African public”.
An ANC NEC insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government could not be faulted for concocting such draconian measures against pesky journalists and their white minders. “By definition, we are a corrupt government, come on, you know that, and we have to protect ourselves if we want to keep governing this beautiful country. “Don’t take it personally,” he added with a hint of concern.
According to the Freedom of the Press index, created by Freedom House, the independent watchdog organisation that supports the expansion of freedom across the globe, including supporting democracy, human rights and monitoring media freedom, just 17% of all citizens live in countries with a free press. The index says that press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa suffered the greatest setbacks, with both Namibia and South Africa dropping from “free” to “partly free”, meaning that there are longer “free” countries in Southern Africa.
The ANC said the statistics showed that South Africa was indeed meeting international benchmarks. “If we want to stand tall amongst international norms, we must take into consideration and conform to what is going on around the world.” “If 83% of all global citizens are living without a free press, we have to ask ourselves if a free press is what we actually need,” said Jackson Mthembu.
Mthembu said that the media shouldn’t become obsessed with freedom and lauded Sanef for their decision to drop their opposition to the new proposed legislation. “The about-turn Sanef has made on the media tribunal proves my statement was accurate, the ANC have received overwhelming support in favour of the proposed bill. Freedom of expression doesn’t put food on your table; the media finally understands the poor aren’t interested in their freedom, they just want to eat,” said Jackson Mthembu. “Most of our African comrades have experienced better control of the media over the past year.”
The freedom index said that press freedom declined in Senegal, Niger, Guinea, Benin, Botswana, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Gabon, Ethiopia, and The Gambia, with Madagascar being declared “not free”, while they noted marginal improvements in Mauritania, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Kenya. Zapiro, South Africa’s premier cartoonist, who is currently facing a multimillion-rand lawsuit from President Zuma over defamation charges because of a cartoon, has shrugged off the bill, claiming it was not likely to affect his work.
“My material rarely comes from leaked documents, besides, if I could survive the Muslims and that Prophet debacle, I guess I could survive just about anything.”
But the ANCYL has hit hard at the editor’s forum, accusing the elite gathering, which hosted some of the most important editors in the country, of being condescending. ANCYL spokesperson Floyd Shivambu said that the league was bothered by the statement. “We don’t believe this official statement from the journalists, it almost feels like a Cosatu resolution.” The ANC has long held that South Africa’s print media was virulently anti-change. Shivambu said that it was one thing for journalists to “pledge” their allegiance to protecting government; it would be quite another in practice. “We realise that too many of these journalists are concerned with their truth. We don’t want their truths; we want the newsroom to be an extension of the ruling party. “Truth is a threat to our democracy,” he added.
The Mail & Guardian newspaper have since announced that they will be turning the Amabhungane Centre for investigative journalism, based at the newspaper’s offices in Johannesburg, into a canteen.
“We realise that we if not longer needed an entire centre to run top-notch investigative journalism at the Mail & Guardian, we might as well open the canteen that we’ve planned for years,” said Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief. “Everyone is just excited to still have a job, besides, Ilham (Rawoot) also makes a mean curry,” said Dawes with a smile.
Dawes said that though the media would no longer oppose the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal, he was concerned that it would not be abetted by the Constitution. “It would be disappointing because jailing journalists for their mistakes would surely improve journalism in this country.”