By: Raymond Louw
South African journalists: From joy to jitters
The optimism seen in 1994 has become clouded with pessimism for the future of press freedom
By: Raymond Louw
Twenty years ago, in 1994, when the liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), triumphed over the white nationalists in the general election that finally swept away apartheid and brought freedom to the masses of Africans and other races in South Africa, most of the 100 laws censoring the media that had come with apartheid were also removed and press freedom restored.
Journalists revelled in the liberated environment but there was little partying because they had actually enjoyed an incremental freedom process over the previous four years after the lifting of the bans outlawing the liberation movements and the release of Nelson Mandela from a life sentence in February 1990.
The removal of the banning orders meant that the media could report on the statements and activities of ANC members and those of other parties which had been strictly prohibited during most of the 42 years apartheid was in force. The police and other authorities had backed off from applying the restrictive laws still on the statute books.
The English-language newspapers, which had battled against apartheid-era censorship, constantly consulting lawyers and devising tactics to avoid breaking the laws, found themselves in a new environment where their previous outright opposition to a vicious apartheid government had to be abruptly retuned into one where the new rulers were encouraged to introduce the freedoms they had promised.
More importantly, the change meant an end to the harassment, beatings, torture and jailing of journalists who stood up to apartheid and who tried to tell the public what was really going on.
The change in the Afrikaans-language press was overwhelming and extremely dramatic. Through all the years of Nationalist Party domination, their newspapers had supported the government’s apartheid policies and its attacks on press freedom and the English-language press. Though the restrictions applied to them equally, they had supported them as ‘patriotic South Africans’ and cheered on the government’s accusations that their English counterparts were guilty of conduct verging on treason.
Overnight they became avid supporters of press freedom. They feared they would be subjected to harsh treatment similar to that meted out to blacks by the National Party government but that this could be prevented by Afrikaners having the freedom to publicise any inroads on them as well as their culture and language and so embarrass the government. In the event, their fears were groundless. The ANC needed them as much as they needed the ANC. Also, President Mandela had instituted a policy of reconciliation, insisting on the rejection of any retribution or revenge.
Freedom House, the New York-based international monitor of freedom, welcomed the new freedoms instituted in South Africa and elevated the freedom rating of the country to ‘free’, so much more wholesome than the ‘partly free’ classification it was given during apartheid.
The switch to a democracy in 1994 changed the attitudes of government officials to the press and information was more readily supplied. In this climate, the media flourished, using their freedoms with telling effect to expose bad governance, abuse of power, corruption and other evils which had begun to surface.
Among voters, anger was growing and a new phenomenon arose, ‘service delivery’ protests. People in the impoverished townships – low-cost housing developments built as apartheid appendages to ‘white’ cities and villages – and in the shanty-towns that had grown alongside them, embarked on angry demonstrations, blocking roads with burning tyres and rocks as they protested nepotism, corruption, lack of services and failure to fulfil promises, especially in local government. With the police being called in to restore order and doing so fiercely, the news pictures that were published and the videos that were broadcast took on the aspects of former apartheid repression.
A major corruption scandal currently involves President Jacob Zuma whose luxury country estate at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal received ‘security upgrades’ from government departments costing about 246 million rand (approximately US$24 million). Newspapers were especially contemptuous of the security tag being applied to a swimming pool, a cattle enclosure (kraal) and a chicken coop as well as other structures. So was the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, who a few days short of a month ago published a damning 400-page report on what had been done by the government at Nkandla. Apart from the improper behaviour of officials, the maladministration, the excessive expenditure and other official failings she found that Zuma had improperly benefited and should repay some of the money spent. An aspect of her report that was especially appealing to journalists was her lavish praise of the Mail & Guardian for uncovering the scandal and other papers for continuing to publicise it.
Meanwhile, opposition politicians were, at the time of writing, trying to establish the legality of the National Prosecuting Authority’s withdrawal of more than 700 charges of fraud and corruption against Zuma before he became president in 2009.
With corruption and other failings of government regularly publicised in the press, embarrassing the politicians involved as well as the government in general, hostility towards the press began to grow among officials, cabinet ministers and others in the ruling ANC. The press was increasingly accused of being in political opposition and unpatriotic. The ANC proposed that parliament set up a state-appointed Media Appeals Tribunal to deal with complaints against the media, an idea promptly denounced by journalists who saw it as an instrument of control.
The ANC back-tracked on this proposal after the Press Council revised its self-regulatory procedures to provide for more public participation in the process now called co-regulation. But it failed to withdraw it, leaving it on the table as an ominous reminder of what could happen. Since 1994 the ANC government has passed several laws that impinge on press freedom and which have raised the ire of the media. It has also provided for the broadening of the application of official secrecy classification, again raising strong opposition from media ranks. The strongest opposition has been directed against the Prohibition of State Information Bill, which has given birth to a powerful freedom of expression NGO, the Right to Know (R2K) campaign.
In addition, the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) is still trying to persuade the government to review and repeal or amend about 12 apartheid-era restrictive laws which are still on the statute books and which are viewed as unconstitutional. Journalists are awaiting an opportunity to test the validity of these laws before the Constitutional Court, the guardian of South Africa’s Constitution, which is regarded as one of the best of its kind in the world. It has made a number of important rulings against the government on constitutional grounds in the past.
As government attitudes to the press continued to harden, and media focused on the increase in restrictive laws, Freedom House exclaimed over the more intense hostility of government politicians towards the press, and withdrew the country’s ‘free’ press status, downgrading it once again to ‘partly free’ in 2010.
The South African press is undergoing financial strains similar to those of newspapers in other parts of the world as a result of the growing attraction of social media. Circulation figures have been badly hit and with the resultant fall-off in revenue, staff numbers have been cut and the scope of news coverage has contracted.
But while the financial future of the press raises concern, there is also growing alarm over attempts to exert political influence over news media. The Gupta family, close friends of President Jacob Zuma who were given special permission to fly in from India a large wedding party to a top security Air Force Base, causing further criticism, has started a daily paper, The New Age, and a 24-hour TV news service, ANN7, both of which are suspected of eventually seeking to promote the ANC government.
At the state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), where allegations have also been made of improper state political influence, the staff has recently been instructed to structure news coverage on a basis of 70% “positive” and 30% “negative” material. Though not specifically directed towards news coverage of the government, it would inevitably relate to this coverage. The directive drew accusations that the broadcaster was influenced by government complaints that the media’s emphasis on ‘negative’ news is ‘unpatriotic’.
There is also disquiet in media circles over the conduct of Dr Iqbal Survé, chairman of Sekunjalo Holdings, a black peoples’ consortium which recently bought the Independent media group which owns the largest number of important titles in the country. Survé summarily dismissed editor Alide Dasnois of the daily Cape Times for publishing as a lead story criticism by the public protector of one of Sekunjalo’s companies and using a four-page ‘wrap-around’ to tell the story of Nelson Mandela’s death on the same day. Survé apparently ignored the fact that the wrap-around was regarded as a publishing master-stroke especially when Time magazine singled it out as one of the 14 top Mandela front pages in the world that day. Survé denied the dismissal, saying he had offered Dasnois other options, but his action was widely condemned as unacceptable managerial interference in the paper’s editorial independence, and that this boded ill for editorial independence in all the company’s papers. Since then two more senior journalists have been dismissed while others including editors have left the company finding it an unattractive environment.
Similar fears have arisen at the Times Media Group, recently taken over by an investment company run by Andrew Bonamour who describes himself as a “long-term investor”. Journalists are alarmed over his criticism of the company’s newspapers being too focussed on politics which he claimed had alienated readers. He elaborated: “You don’t always want to read about politics, there is other stuff that is news and relevant.’’
Despite what is seen as attempts to temper newspaper criticism of government, journalists in papers like the Mail & Guardian and some of the other titles have continued to uncover corruption, maladministration and abuse of power – all showing worrying growth in South Africa. Their courage is to be applauded.
But as the 20-year review period comes to an end with this recent chronicle of alarming managerial approaches to press coverage, the optimism generated by the arrival of democracy in 1994 has become clouded if not tinged with pessimism for the future of press freedom in South Africa.
Raymond Louw, an IPI World Press Freedom Hero in 2011, is chairman of the South African Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail. He made these remarks at IPI’s Congress in Cape Town on April 14. This is reprinted with the permission of TheMediaOnline in South Africa, where it was first published.