Fears for ANC media plan

2010-08-08 10:39

Johannesburg - Proposed media regulations in South Africa have raised fears that the government is trying to control news coverage, drawing comparisons to apartheid-era censorship.

The ruling African National Congress is mulling a Media Appeals Tribunal, while parliament is considering the Protection of Information Bill, which media organisations say would hamper investigative reporting.

"The tribunal raises concerns similar to those endured by media during the dark days of apartheid. We don't want to go back there," said Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe.

The media tribunal, first mooted in 2007, would adjudicate complaints on media reports in a bid to make journalists legally accountable, the ANC said.

Media houses are wary of legal penalties, and say the Press Ombudsman already hears complaints and can require newspapers to print prominent apologies or corrections.

Behaviour of journalists

"Many laws restrict what can be published but not the behaviour of journalists, and there are few legal remedies for inaccurate reporting," the ANC said in a document on the proposal.

Recent reports on government spending on luxury vehicles have irked the government of President Jacob Zuma, who also figured in a long investigation into a multi-billion-dollar arms deal first reported in South African media.

ANC secretary Gwede Mantashe said a media tribunal was required to deal with the so-called "dearth of media ethics" in South Africa. The party's general council will thrash out the idea at a meeting next month.

Government spokesperson Themba Maseko said Zuma's office would organise a meeting with editors to discuss the proposals.

"What we can state without any reservation here is that there is no intention or a plan on the part of this government to muzzle the media in any shape or form," Maseko said.

Not enemies

"It is absolutely essential for a conversation to exist between government and senior leaders in the media so that we do not end up being on opposing sides as if we are actually enemies."

Joining the campaign against the tribunal is the country's largest labour group, Cosatu, which has been sympathetic to press freedom and is a key ally of the government.

"This must not be seen as an issue between the media and the ANC, but an issue involving a range of people," said Anton Harper, journalism professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

During the whites-only apartheid rule, the ANC benefited immensely from the few media who dared report on the atrocities of the regime - attracting global attention to the crisis even as reports were blacked out domestically.

Critics say the ANC would be recreating the restrictions of the past with the Protection of Information Bill, criticised even within the party, which is currently in parliament.

Could go to court

The bill seeks to classify information deemed of national security. Publication of classified information would be punishable with up to 25 years in jail.

Leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance Helen Zille said the bill would make it harder for journalists to investigate government.

"If passed, the Protection of Information Bill will criminalise investigative journalism," said Zille, a former reporter.

Editors believe stories like the arms scandal, which depended on leaked government documents, would never come out under the proposed law and have vowed to challenge the bill in court if it becomes law.

"At the end of the day, we have the courts. We will resort to the highest courts," said Mondli Makhanya chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum.

"There is a constitution which stipulates media freedom in our country," Makhanya told a gathering of journalists in Johannesburg.