Monday, August 2, 2010

New South African government threatens press with tribunal

South Africa: Editors Rebuff Media Tribunal Idea

Jocelyn Newmarch

26 July 2010

Johannesburg — SOUTH African editors yesterday vowed to

resist attempts to institute a state-appointed media tribunal andrejected legislation that

they said restricted public access to information.

The South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) said yesterdaythat there was an existing

system of media self-regulation, involving the Press Council and Press Ombudsman. It

vowed to campaign for public support formedia freedom, and urged a "zero-tolerance"

approach to press code violations.

Addressing editors on Saturday, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said that in exercising the right

to free expression, there was a duty to guard against "furtherance of propaganda for

war and incitement of imminent violence, to name just a few examples".

Mr Radebe's remarks were seen as alluding to a media tribunal, first proposed at the

ANC's Polokwane conference in 2007. But he said the media would not be treated as the

apartheid regime treated black journalists, and invited the media to participate in drafting


Mr Radebe said proposals on policy issues -- including section 205 of the Criminal Procedures

Act, which can compel journalists to reveal confidential sources -- would be released this week.

The African National Congress is expected to consider proposals for a tribunal in September.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has appealed for calm when discussing the ANC’s

proposed media tribunal and not go on the offensive.

On the contrary we all should, whether we are in and of the news media or not, forcefully 

resist this attempt to curtail freedom of speech.

Let’s be blunt. Whether it comes in the form of a media tribunal or the provisions of proposed 

protection of information laws, what we are talking about is censorship.

It is a matter of freedom of expression and the right of citizens to know.

We, the public, should not let the newspapers in particular collude in their own gradual castration.

As a journalist, I saw the effect of self-censorship often during the apartheid past and the way it

hurts, not newspapers or journalists, but the rights of ordinary people.

I have a specific memory of how self-censorship operates. I think back to the sub-editors’ room

of the Weekend World in 1976.

The World newspaper was owned by the liberal Argus printing group, ultimately owned by Anglo

American Corporation. Working as a sub-editor, I had sent off for printing a page with an article

detailing South Africa’s first military incursion into Angola. It was news to me and I thought the

readers of the Weekend World might like to know about it.

I forget the exact process now, but a senior, white editor had to sign off all pages. He rushed in to

the subs’ room and ordered me to replace the article immediately because it broke the law.

The Defence Act or some other piece of legislation demanded that all stories about the military

had to be cleared by the SA National Defence Force before publication, and the SANDF had

instructed that no news was to be published about the Angolan operation.

We were in effect keeping the news of South Africa’s illegal, undeclared war in Angola secret

from the public, among them the fathers and mothers of the white conscripted soldiers who were

being sent to fight in Angola alongside rebel forces. The senior journalist would have justified his a

ction by reference to the consequences for the newspaper if the story appeared.

But his action was just part of a long-standing process of keeping the news media tame.

He was one of a cadre of conservative journalists who believed they were moral and professional,

but whose co-operation with the authorities was wrapped up in their careers.

A knowledge of the plethora of regulations about what could be published and what could not was

part of a journalist’s tool kit, and an expectation that these should be followed to the letter was part

of the job.

As a young sub-editor I learned a hard lesson about the reality of press freedom in South Africa.

The government eventually closed The World anyway when it stopped being so cautious. You

cannot co-operate with tyranny in the hope of getting a little more freedom.

The example of the censoring of the story about the secret Angolan operation showed how you 

could work as a journalist on newspapers that ostensibly opposed apartheid but were heavily censored

and yet live with a clear conscience.

The journalists at the Weekly Mail newspaper, formed nine years later, took another tack, which

was to stretch the boundaries of obedience and thumb a nose at those same authorities.

Faced with the same situation they would have worked out a way to let the public know that

they were being prevented from publishing something of importance.

Along with other “alternative” newspapers, they focused on publishing uncomfortable truths,

challenging the apartheid authorities to enforce their censorship rather than rely on self-censorship.

There is a strong belief that had all the opposition, English-language newspaper groups stood firm

at an early stage and rejected co-operation with the increasingly absurd demands about what could

and what could not be printed, censorship would not have worked. The government would have

been forced to back down, or taken steps so extreme it would have hurried along the fall of the regime.

The suspicion at the time was that those who complied actually found aspects of apartheid

rather agreeable, and preferred mowing their perfect lawns to thinking about what was happening

in the townships and certainly preferred not to upset the government.

So now what is it exactly that the ANC wants from the news media? Some agreement on a 

mechanism to stop the news media making the ANC uncomfortable in some areas in 

exchange for freedom-to-publish in other areas?

Let’s not be distracted by a couple of corrupt journalists who accepted pay for taking sides.

If this is common, as is claimed, no regulation is going to prevent it. Competition among news media

is the only protection, along with vigilance by editors who don’t want the very worth of their

organisations’ reporting questioned.

Many journalists would rather say “okay, take your best shot” rather than collaborate again.

Impose a media tribunal, if you like, and bear the national and international opprobrium. Don’t expect

us to help you put censorship in place, or give it any legitimacy. Even those among us who are outraged

by the conduct of some our colleagues will smother our disagreements for the sake of solidarity

and defence of freedom.

A media tribunal will have an unintended effect. There is, in a sense, an information market,

where restricting supply of real news increases its value. The news will come out, and when it does

it will be more damaging than ever. If you want to dull the news down, make information freely 

available. A story about cabinet ministers driving cars worth more than R1 million is sensational, but 

not half as sensational as when someone has tried to keep it a secret.

It is embarrassing to government because instinctively we know it is wrong for supposed servants

of the people to indulge in opulence when many of those they are supposed to serve are desperately

poor. And it does not matter whether such luxury is sanctified by government handbooks or by custom

here or anywhere else in the world.

If it were not wrong, publishing it would not matter in the least, and those who did publish such

stories would be laughed at. The way to stop damaging stories appearing in the news media is

to stop supplying the material for it through actions that other people might think questionable, not

to insist we all keep quiet about these things.

Censorship or self-censorship will also give some journalists, made lazy by the free flow of

information, purpose once again. Others will be happy to toe the line.

Moreover, no censorship can target only one form of media: why should newspapers be

especially regulated rather than books, websites, plays and other forms of mass communication?

What would happen if newspapers fell silent on certain issues is that other media would be opened

up. Desktop publishing, a novelty in the 1980s, allowed the alternative news media to flourish.

Other technology will do the same thing now, whether it is the internet or cellphones.

The implication is that censorship cannot work without curbing the freedom of speech of the individual.

If the government is determined to go down this path, the real loser will be the ordinary citizen, whose

right to know will be curtailed on the one hand, and whose right to speak freely limited on the other.

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One Response to “The press must be free, not dom”

First you have the idealists and they set up democracy.

Then come the politicians and they find democracy inconvenient so they restrict it.

After them come the thugs and they replace democracy with something like the system

democracy replaced.

So far, democracy in SA hasn’t even lasted 20 years. Look north to get an idea what’s coming next.


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