6 August 2010
The FXI views recent developments in the media environment as cause for considerable concern.
Amidst renewed calls for a media appeals tribunal by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partner the South African Communist Party (SACP), various incidents over the recent past have exacerbated fears about attempts by the state to gain greater control over the media. At the other end of the spectrum, concerns have been voiced about journalistic professionalism and inept attempts to control media workers from within media organisations. All this comes at a time when several pieces of legislation currently under consideration by the state could seriously limit freedom of expression and particularly, freedom of the media. The most draconian of these is potentially the Protection of Information Bill currently before parliament, on which the FXI has made submissions, and which was analysed in a separate press release.
The day after his story exposing alleged irregularities in tender proceedings within the police service was published, Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested at his workplace by a large contingent of policemen. Combined with the insistence by members of government that the Protection of Information Bill should be passed despite its sweeping ambit and its potential to severely limit the scope of investigative journalism, wa Afrika’s arrest has widely been interpreted as a threat to media freedom and a harbinger of future attempts to limit the press. Wa Afrika has since been released on bail.
Secondly, the ANC has published a discussion document on “Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity”, in which calls for a media appeals tribunal are re-iterated. The SACP’s General Secretary, Blade Nzimande, has also called for a “a media tribunal that will hold journalists accountable” and for punitive measures against journalists who publish false reports.
The Times newspaper, under the headline “Jail Journalists- Nzimande”, misrepresented Nzimande’s statement, and subsequently issued a weak retraction. By contrast, in the same week, the Business Day newspaper prominently featured a front-page apology to a cabinet minister for publishing a story from a single uncorroborated source.
Several of the criticisms regarding monopolies on media ownership and the need to ensure that media practitioners adhere to a code of ethics are valid ones. Media practitioners are not above the law and must operate within the parameters of responsibility and accountability, acknowledging mistakes with dignity and grace when these occur. They must also be able to function without fear of political intimidation or punishment when what they report is not flattering to those in power.
The FXI does not believe that the proposed legislation currently being considered presents appropriate solutions to the problems noted here. Nor is a state-controlled media appeals tribunal the answer. Instead, such measures will create new problems that could further impact the right of the South African public to access a diverse range of independent media who can operate without fear, favour or prejudice.
Rather, criticisms of the current Press Ombud’s Office need to be constructively addressed in order to strengthen the Ombud and enable it to be more proactive. An analysis of best practice in countries that enjoy a vibrant and diverse media environment might be useful in this regard.
Various high-ranking members of government have attempted to reassure practitioners that the proposed legislation and other measures are not intended to limit free expression and independent media. While this may be so, governments and domestic polity change, but laws often endure through various administrations. Legislation such as the Protection of Information Bill, which would confer extremely wide-ranging powers to classify information on the pretext of ‘national interest’, could potentially be used by a more conservative future administration for repressive purposes. In the southern African region alone, there are sobering examples that highlight the manipulation of existing laws by regimes seeking to limit free expression and independent media. South Africans need to be vigilant to ensure that no law enters the statute books that could, at some point, be used to suppress the hard-won freedoms that comprise our Bill of Rights.
Finally, Avusa Media has suspended journalist Mawande Jack, president of the Mandela Bay Media Association, reportedly for recruiting co-workers into the Communications Workers Union (CWU), and distributing union materials to co-workers. Reports indicate that this is not the first time Avusa in the Eastern Cape has moved to limit the rights of its employees to join unions and participate in their activities. A picket protest was organised outside Avusa’s Port Elizabeth offices in solidarity with Mr Jack on Thursday and Friday. Given the fears of state-driven limitations on freedom of expression noted above, it is ironic that a major media house is seemingly intent on limiting the rights of its own employees. The FXI urges all media organs to uphold the constitutional rights of employees, including the rights to freedom of association and to freely access and impart information.
The FXI is committed to protecting and advancing the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in the South African constitution, together with the associated rights to access and impart information, and to freedom of the media.
Enquiries: Ayesha Kajee, Executive Director, Freedom of Expression Institute
Phone: 083 500 74 86