'New media act is censorship'
Johannesburg - The degree of media freedom has improved since the advent of democracy in South Africa but a lot more still needs to be done, said Raymond Louw, deputy chair of the South Africa chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
He was address a commemoration of "Black Wednesday" or Media Freedom Day in Johannesburg on Monday.
Monday was the anniversary of Wednesday, October 19, 1977, the day that saw major newspapers, The World, Weekend World and the Christian publication Pro-Veritas, banned by the then apartheid government. On the same day scores of activists and journalists were detained.
"The media is much freer today compared to the apartheid days. However, there is still a lot more to be done to ensure its independence," said Louw.
Controlling the media
He said the government was introducing legislation that sought to control the media.
"I am extremely worried about these laws. I'm even more worried about more legislation being introduced," he said.
Referring to the Films and Publications Amendment Act 3 of 2009 which was recently signed into law, Louw said it brought about unpleasant working conditions, where journalists and publishers were working in fear of being jailed or incurring huge fines.
The new law states that every publication - including those on the internet - that is not a recognised newspaper, must be submitted for classification if it can possibly be construed to deal with a variety of matters listed in the legislation.
These matters include sexual conduct with violates or shows disrespect for the rights of human dignity of any person, degrades a person or constitutes incitement to cause harm or violence and advocates propaganda for war.
When the bill was introduced in 2006, the media industry protested that it paved the way for pre-publication censorship and criminalised free expression.
Louw said: "I don't think it is constitutional for publishers to have to get approval before their stories are published," said Louw, adding that the legislation was broad, complicated and confusing.
He said South Africa should guard against following in the footsteps of Zimbabwe, Botswana and other African countries which sought to control their media.
"It is not a South African or ANC thing. In developed countries president after president has tried to introduce legislation attempting to control the media," said Louw.
Journalists should fight for media freedom. "They should make a big noise about it to stop these laws, like the class of 1977 did," he said.
He said it was worrying that in the past few years, of the 53 countries on the African continent, 31 had journalists detained or sentenced, or publications closed down.
Retired Judge Pius Langa refused to be drawn into the constitutionality of the Films & Publications Amendment Act.
"I can't make judgements here. It is the media's role to investigate these laws and take them to court if they are unhappy," said Langa.
Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe said journalists today were too greedy.
"The class of 1977 was driven by a bigger cause to liberate and educate the nation. Today journalists are greedy. They worry more about their salaries and benefits, than serving the public," said Thloloe.