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Media freedom — on the verge of extinction?

After 1994, many people thought South African media would be free at last, following many years of censorship under apartheid regime.

But that did not happen as we thought it would. In 1996, former president Nelson Mandela castigated black journalists for being critical of him and his government.

My question is: Were these journalists being critical of him or merely reporting on what was happening? In South Africa, the media do have freedom in the Constitution, but sometimes the concept is becoming comical.

The difference between South African media and other African media is that journalists are not killed, as is happening in the other countries. That is why many people think that South African media are liberated.

Although our government is not controlling the media as it is happening in countries like Zimbabwe, where private media are closed down, it is getting there with the way things are going in the country.

Here in South Africa we see newspapers like the Mail & Guardian being gagged regularly. Most of the people in this country have never seen or understood what was happening about the cartoons depicting Muhammad that were published all over the world, because newspapers were under a court interdict. Because of this, people had to rely on other media worldwide to see what was happening.

People often obtain court interdicts against newspapers. The NPA tried to prevent the M&G publishing the story about Jackie Selebi and his friend Agliotti, and the one about former SABC attorney Sihlali. Jacob Zuma regularly blames the media in his corruption and rape cases; he has made it clear that the media need to be regulated.

When Brett Kebble was murdered, Essop Pahad criticised many publications over what he called insensitive reporting, especially the Sunday Times. The publication used the following sentence in one of its editorials: “So today we say farewell to the Great Corrupter. May no more like you be born.”

The same man also accused South African media of bias in their reporting of Zimbabwe. He is the same man who has threatened to pull the government’s adverts in the Sunday Times, because of its reports on Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. The ANC is to consider setting up a media tribunal to discuss “the adequacy or otherwise of the prevailing self-regulatory dispensation within the media”, according to a policy document that came out of its conference in June.

As many people are calling for media regulation, it is now clear if the South African media were regulated, the Manto story would have never seen the light. The minute South African media are regulated by the government, it will be pure censorship. The Manto Tshabalala-Msimang story even had organisations such as Sanco calling on the NPA to investigate Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya, regarding his alleged role in the self-defence units in KwaZulu-Natal during the violence of the 1990s.

Last week it was Smuts Ngonyama reprimanding the use of newspaper cartoons that sketch politics.

The minute that South African media are regulated, the government will make sure that every story that reflects badly on its image will not be published. Then we will be no different from the Zimbabwean media.

If something is not done about the issue of media freedom in South Africa, we will not be different from Zimbabwe, The Gambia, Somalia and other countries where press freedom does not exist. Our press freedom will be only a far-off memory.