‘They’re bloody well not going to silence me’

2010-09-16 08:28

When South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) in July unveiled proposals for a statutory tribunal to try journalists accused of incorrect or biased reporting, the country’s wordsmiths went into shock.

Particularly those who had experienced censorship.

“It was a sort of shock of disbelief,” one of South Africa’s best-known novelists, Andre Brink, told the German Press Agency dpa in a telephone interview.

Sixteen years after black South Africans had voted out the repressive apartheid regime, “it was so shocking to see the ANC moving in exactly the same direction (as the old regime),” the 75- year-old author of A Dry White Season said.

Currently, South Africa’s print media polices itself, through a press ombudsman and press council.

At a party conference next week in Durban, the ANC will decide whether to pursue a more punitive approach in the form of a Media Appeals Tribunal that would be set up by, and answer to, parliament.

The proposal comes as lawmakers debate a Protection of Information Bill that would give the government sweeping powers to classify information deemed to be in the loosely defined “national interest” and make the dissemination of such information punishable by up to 25 years in jail.

Following a flurry of revelations about corruption in President Jacob Zuma’s government, the proposals have sparked suspicion that the ANC, which has displayed growing sensitivity to criticism, wants to muzzle the media
For Brink, whose 1973 novel Kennis van die Aand (Looking on Darkness) about a mixed-race couple was the first Afrikaans book to be banned during apartheid, the proposals smack of a return to the mind control of the past.

Outraged by the threat to South Africans’ hard-won freedom of expression, Brink and Nobel literature prize winner Nadine Gordimer, author of July’s People and The Conservationist and also a fierce critic of apartheid, mobilized anew.

The two launched a petition, denouncing the bill and the “Media Tribunal-World Police” as an attack not only on freedom of expression but freedom of thought.

If writers’ freedom is in jeopardy, “the freedom of every reader in South Africa is in danger,” they warned. That includes “freedom of thought expressed, freedom of dialogue, freedom from fear of the truth about ourselves, all South Africans.”

By the time the petition was sent to Zuma’s office on August 31, more than 500 people had signed it, including every South African writer of note, with Nobel laureate and two-time Booker winner JM Coetzee among them.

“The response was tremendous,” Brink said proudly.

At the same time, he appears to hold out little hope for a democratic renewal.

“Our leaders since Mr Mandela have been deeply resistant to criticism and truth-telling,” Brink wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times last week.

Yet, until now they had drawn a line at trying to muzzle the media.

“That seems to be closing down now,” Brink told dpa.

As to why it took two white authors to fire up the literary world, given the proliferation of young black writers, Brink said: “I think Nadine and I had experience of how one sees the danger looming ahead.”

“There is a feeling they’re bloody well not going to silence me,” he added.

In the meantime, the ANC appears to have underestimated the resistance it would encounter in trying to bring the media to heel and the damage it could cause to the country’s image, which has just been buffed by a successful World Cup.

The United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists last month described the Protection of Information Bill as “reminiscent of apartheid-era regulations.”

At talks last week with editors, the ANC said parliament was reviewing some of the more controversial clauses in the Protection of Information bill, while continuing to “investigate the desirability of a statutory MAT (Media Appeals Tribunal).”

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