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South Africa: Press freedom under threat

New legislation would curb journalists' ability to expose corruption.

The Protection of Information Bill is currently before parliament, and the Media Appeals Tribunal will be discussed at an ANC national general council meeting next month.

South Africa’s media was downgraded from “free” to “partly free” on the Freedom House’s annual press freedom index for 2010, a reflection of several factors including “increased negative rhetoric against the press” by government officials, and infringements on the independence of national broadcaster SABC. There are now no African countries with a media considered to be free, according to the report.

Another incident fuelling fears over media repression is the arrest on Aug. 4 of an investigative journalist from a top South African newspaper. Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested on fraud charges, allegedly over a forged document that had been faxed to him. Wa Afrika’s arrest by a phalanx of police officers as he left the Sunday Times offices came shortly after he had exposed a dodgy property deal approved by national police chief Bheki Cele.

ANC cabinet ministers are frequent targets of newspaper investigations into corruption and misuse of funds, and President Jacob Zuma’s complicated personal life is also often the subject of media reports.

“The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian?” asked Zuma in a recent letter to ANC members.

At the same time as newspapers are coming under attack, a prominent business family with close ties to the ANC has said that it will launch a new ANC-aligned newspaper, The New Age — jokingly dubbed “The Zuma Times” by columnists.

An ANC discussion document that argues for regulation of the print media says that some newspapers have shown an “astonishing degree of dishonesty, lack of professional integrity and independence.”

“Some factions of the media continue to adopt an anti-transformation, anti-development and anti-ANC stance,” the document said.

Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party — which is allied with the ANC — has stated that the media is the greatest threat to South Africa's democracy.

But cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale has praised the South African media and its role in fighting corruption. He said the new legislation should not be a serious impediment to the press.

“I don't think there’s anybody who’s trying to push South Africa back to the dark ages," he told media in Pretoria last week. "We know where we come from and I think we are very cautious.”