Lizette Rabe

Tough week for media in SA

2006-09-15 08:44

Lizette Rabe

"It's the bill that should be banned, not the media", were the words of the chairperson of Sanef's Ferial Haffajee earlier this week. And at the end of the week, her newspaper was - once again - the subject of a banning order.

You're right, it's still THAT bill that has the South African media on its hind legs. Indeed, the concern about the proposed amendment to the Film and Publications Act and how this will impact on our media freedom was - again - under discussion earlier this week. This time around it was at a council meeting of the South African National Editors' Forum in Grahamstown.

But, it seems we do not even have to have such an amended act.

As it is, media freedom is already under severe threat in our country. While writing this, news broke that there was an attempt to ban Friday's edition of the Mail & Guardian. A High Court application was brought against the newspaper by Maanda Manyatshe, former CEO of the South African Post Office and current CEO of MTN South Africa.

Appropriate justice

Why gag a newspaper before it is published? Surely, if it contains libellous material, the offended parties can seek the appropriate justice?

The application was heard on Thursday and the judge granted an interim order, saying the Mail & Guardian is not allowed to disseminate any information on this matter until the court reaches a final decision on whether to finally interdict the publication.

While writing this, the words of Sanef chairperson and Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee resonate: "It's the bill that should be banned, not the media."

Indeed, not the media that should be banned. It is a pity that justice did not prevail in our courts. Media freedom received another blow by the pre-publication banning of a newspaper.

Thankfully, Sanef, as one of a handful of media freedom watchdogs will be alert. In a media release after the meeting earlier this week, Sanef stated that it plans "a programme of rolling protest action and high-level engagement to ensure the bill is amended to protect media freedom".

It will be a magnificent sight to see our eminent and prominent editors doing their "rolling protest action" thing. But then too, one hopes it will not develop into this. Indeed, it still seems like a bad dream that we are fighting such a bill under a constitution that supposedly entrenches freedom of expression.

Should the bill become law, the self-regulatory bodies of the media will become redundant seeing that we will then have Big Brother watching over us.

But we will not have a democracy. We will then not have a free media. What we will have is authoritarian rulers and our constitution will be a joke.

Our country cannot even afford the publicity this bad joke created, how would we be able to cope if the powers that be do not take these protests seriously?

Infringements on media freedom

This is happening on a continent where there are serious infringements on media freedom. The African Editors' Forum, also at its meeting earlier this week, condemned the assassination of a Sudanese editor last week. And it deplored the exile of the editor of a Gambian newspaper who was forced to flee after being detained and harassed after telling his story of how South African President Thabo Mbeki had promised to help Gambian journalists by interceding with their government over media repression.

And then, lastly, back in our own country. Since when can a country's media not take photographs of its president when he is admitted to a hospital? Sanef also did its protest bit about this unsavoury and unsatisfactory state of media unfreedom by speaking out against the recent harassment of journalists by our president's security staff. Not only were the journalists harassed, the pictures that were taken on the day were confiscated.

Together with the application to have a newspaper banned, we should ask: is this acceptable?

We need to be brave. Join the protest.

  • Lizette Rabe is head of the postgraduate Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, a Sanef council member and Sanef-convenor for the Western Cape. And she's addicted to news.

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