South Africa’s media: the Zimbabwe precedent

South Africa’s liberation from apartheid promised, as one of democracy’s essential supports, a climate of media freedom to ensure the accountability of those in power. But the country’s ruling ANC now proposes legislation that would endanger this freedom. The echoes of Zimbabwe are too close to ignore, says Roger Southall.
Roger Southall
22 October 2010

Repressive media laws; wide-ranging censorship of the print media; sweeping definitions of “national security”; tame reporting by intimidated newspapers; tight government control of broadcasting and reduction of state broadcasting entities into organs of propaganda; raids on troublesome newspapers, arrests and assassination of reporters, clampdowns on news organs with the temerity to expose corruption and inconvenient truths; states of emergency; and bans on all but hostile reporting regarding the liberation movements. All these, and many other devices, were the routine mechanisms of former white minority governments in southern Africa.

No wonder that the struggle for media freedom was integral to the struggle for democracy throughout the region, and that the different national-liberation movements looked to the alternative media outlets that emerged to outwit oppressive restrictions as their allies! As the African National Congress media official Victor Moche proclaimed to an international audience in 1987: “A sycophantic press is the most fertile breeding-ground for tyranny.”

National liberation was meant to bring political accountability alongside democracy: government was meant to be open to media scrutiny. The new mood found its fullest expression in South Africa, where the negotiated constitution gave extensive guarantees of individual and media freedom.

For its part, the African National Congress (ANC)-led government was initially concerned to promote “transformation” of the media, by which it meant primarily de-racialisation of its ownership, rather than imposing restrictions on what it might have to say. But once in power, the ANC soon discovered what all democratic governments find: that the media can become a scourge of incompetence and abuse of power.

The proposals

As the years rolled by, and as revelations of corruption and mismanagement increased from a trickle to a torrent, so the impatience of the ANC with independent reporting began to grow. The trend accelerated with the opening up of divisions within the party prior to its fifty-second national conference conference at Polokwane in December 2007 conference - and when the competing Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma factions were feeding the press with morsels detrimental to their rivals (see “Thabo Mbeki’s fall: the ANC and South Africa’s democracy”, 14 October 2008).

It was easy enough to reduce the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to its apartheid-era level of subservience to government through the “deployment” of loyalists to its senior management (although even then the Mbeki/Zuma rivalry came to paralyse its governing board). Nor was it so difficult to get the SABC to blacklist persons deemed hostile to the ANC (although it proved far less easy to keep this quiet). But it was far, far more difficult to contain the constant flow of information embarrassing to the ANC which was to become the staple of the independent media - this ranging from detailed exposure of the sexual antics of Jacob Zuma through financial excesses by ministers to at times mind-numbing exposure of corruption.

A united political elite confident of itself and its mission should have been able to rebuff and debate criticism, but an increasingly divided and insecure one came instead to regard the independent media as an irresponsible and unruly enemy: the media, ANC Youth League president Julius Malema has declared, has become "dangerous to the revolution". ANC thinking was embodied in a set of resolutions at Polokwane concerning “the battle for ideas”.

These railed against “the slow pace of transformation” (i.e. change in ownership patterns) and declared that the party was faced with a “major ideological offensive, largely driven by the opposition and fractions in the mainstream media, whose key objective is the promotion of market fundamentalism, control of the media and the images it creates of a new democratic dispensation in order to retain old apartheid economic and social relations”. Further, the media often “conducts itself to the detriment of the constitutional rights of others”.

The conference therefore went on to recommend that establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) should be considered with a view to balancing the right to freedom of expression against the rights to “equality, privacy and human dignity for all”.

This proposal was in July 2010 embodied in a document on “Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity” prepared for ratification by the ANC’s policy-making National General Council on 20-24 September (a meeting held every five years). The document declares that the present system of media self-regulation via a press ombudsmen is not merely inadequate but self-interested, and calls for establishment of a MAT, “supported by public funds and accountable to the people through parliament”. Parliament should also investigate the ownership and control of the print media to enable equitable participation in the media environment.

The example

A first, post-Polokwane run at imposing “responsibility” upon the media had been made in 2008 with publication of the Protection of Information Bill, but this was reluctantly withdrawn following stinging criticism from civil society for being too vague and giving too much power to the executive.

However, alongside the proposal for the Media Appeals Tribunal has come a new Protection of Information Bill which, rather than being an improvement, is, if anything, considerably worse, and is widely considered - as by those who marched in Johannesburg on Media Freedom Day, 19 October - to represent a fundamental threat to democracy. Indeed, it evinces marked similarity with a highly restrictive law passed by the Robert Mugabe government when it was presented with the with the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in 1999.

The Mugabe government had never embraced media freedom in the initial fashion of its South African counterpart. True, it had abolished a law which had made it illegal for the media to report debates in parliament, but it had retained the Law and Order Maintenance Act (Loma) of the predecessor government of Ian Smith which had imposed heavy sanctions upon those publishing information deemed prejudicial to state security.

Furthermore, although it adopted a media policy whose declared purpose was secure a shift from a minority-controlled media to one whose ownership was reflective of Zimbabwean society as a whole and which would be free and non-partisan, its strategy rapidly degenerated into one of attempted control, symbolised by official domination of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).

Official restrictions sufficed to minimise domestic reportage upon the Gukurahundi massacres in 1982-87 (in which some 20,000 people in Matabeleland were slaughtered by the army in revenge for Matabele support for the opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union [Zapu]); following this, Zapu was forced into an association (as very much the subordinated partner) with the ruling party. Yet thereafter, the government found itself confronted by an increasingly vigorous independent media, as the ZBC and the party mouthpiece, The Herald, once the country’s foremost newspaper, lost credibility.

Zimbabwe’s independent media had played a key role in opposing the government’s unsuccessful campaign to impose single-party rule during the mid-1980s. Thereafter, the appearance of a series of new titles, such as the Daily News, Financial Gazette and The Standard fed the public with exposures of scandals, corruption, looting of state finances and government abuses of human rights.

The outcome - during the approach to the general election of 2002, when the government felt severely threatened - was the passage of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This replaced Loma in law, but mimicked Ian Smith in spirit, gagging the independent media in three ways.

First, access to any information relating to cabinet or local government could only be granted by the head of a public body.

Second, under the rubrics of “Abuse of Freedom of Expression” and “Abuse of Journalistic Privilege”, any journalist publishing, or any person responsible for publication of, any statement “threatening the interests of defence, public safety, public order, the economic interests of the state, public morality or public health” would be liable to a heavy fine or up to two to three years in jail respectively.

Third, alongside many other restrictions, the act established a Media and Information Commission (later constituted as the Zimbabwe Media Commission) which would register the mass media, consider applications for accreditation as journalists, and conduct investigations to ensure compliance with the act. It was not long before the government closed down various news outlets, including the Daily News, and imposed bans upon the BBC, CNN, Sky and a host of other western broadcasting stations.

As official repression of the media grew, many Zimbabwean journalists fled to neighbouring countries where, from exile, they established online news sites such as Sokwanele, which could be accessed from within Zimbabwe because of the government’s limited ability to control the internet. While these provided detailed coverage of the emerging opposition and a diet of items highly critical of the government, they remained of limited influence, as only a small minority of the population had access to them.

Overall, claimed Reporters without Borders, the media was subject to extensive “surveillance, threats, imprisonment, censorship, blackmail, abuse of power and denial of justice”. The need to provide a façade of media freedom led to some relaxation of restrictions during the 2008 elections (even though government-controlled media remained terribly skewed).

Furthermore, the post-election “global political agreement”, which brought the opposition MDC into a power-sharing government, saw the return of certain foreign broadcasters, MDC promises to democratise the media, a reappearance of previously banned or suppressed titles, and the formation of Zimbabwe Journalists for Human Rights (ZJHR) to promote and defend media freedom. Even so, a host of de facto restrictions remain, with huge effects on freedom of information, while the ZBC and other Zanu-PF dominated outlets remain little more than sources of pro-Mugabe propaganda.

It may seem scarcely credible, even allowing for known sympathies within top echelons of the ANC for Zanu-PF, that the proposed Freedom of Information Bill should follow the notoriously discredited example of Zimbabwe. Surely the government of a democratic South Africa; surely the continent’s oldest nationalist movement with a proud record of commitment to freedom; surely a government which is still basking in international glory for its successful staging of the football world cup in 2010 would not possibly be so crass, so unbelievably stupid, so unutterably misguided to do that?

Think again, for sadly, remarkably, all too truly, it is so! Consider the facts and the immediate circumstances.

The content

First, as noted, this latest venture is a repeat effort, not a first attempt, to pass a law whose result would be to impose comprehensive restrictions upon the independent media. The government will claim its most alarming threats will be kept in reserve, only to be hauled out in the interests of “national security”. Yet, as was demonstrated under apartheid, the established media has an enormous capacity for self-censorship if its survival and profits are at stake.

Second, the bill introduces many of the features of its Zimbabwean counterpart. These include the introduction of an extensive system of classification of official information by heads of “organs of state” (national and provincial ministries, local government and parastatals) whose effect would be to restrict the right to access information in the name of the national interest - which is sweepingly defined as all matters related to “the advancement of the public good”’ and to “the protection and preservation of all things owned or maintained for the public by the state”. Any person unlawfully communicating such information would be liable to imprisonment for periods between three to twenty-five years, according to the seriousness of the offence.

Third, the publication of the draft bill was prefaced by the shameful arrest of Mzilikazi wa Afrika. He is a journalist who had written an expose of the approval by police commissioner Bheki Cele of a R500-million ($72m) deal to buy the eighteen-storey Sanlam centre in the middle of Pretoria, and turn it into a new police headquarters. The purchase, from a property company owned by a well-known businessman called Roux Shabangu, was in violation of treasury regulations that all contracts over R500,000 must go out to tender.

However, wa Afrika was initially charged - after having been detained in public by eight members of the Hawks, an elite police unit - alongside Victor Mlimi, a local councillor in Mombela (in Mpumalanga province), with fraud and forgery relating to publication of a fake letter of resignation by David Mabuza, the Mpumalanga premier.

Mabuza presides over a province wracked by alleged corruption, and is under considerable media suspicion for involvement in a number of killings, while at least one journalist is under round-the-clock protection for inconvenient probing. Yet following wa Afrika’s arrest it came to light that Mabuza himself had lodged criminal charges of fraud and defeating the ends of justice against wa Afrika and Mlimi, apparently prompting the arrest; and that his own staff had played a key role in tipping off journalists as to the existence of this fake letter!

Not surprisingly, the conclusion has been drawn that wa Afrika’s arrest forms part of a pattern to intimidate crusading journalists. Even though the charges against him (and Victor Mlimi) were withdrawn on 8 September 2010, that judgment remains credible.

Fourth, the proposal for a Media Appeals Tribunal looks uncannily like the Zimbabwe Media Commission. Its justification, as with the Protection of Information Bill, is made on Orwellian terms; the ANC cynically promises that it would protect freedom, yet the outcome would be to impose severe restrictions upon the media.

The danger

The ANC’s proposals have met with widespread outrage. The editors of all the leading newspapers have launched a campaign against any attempt to curtail freedom of expression and the free flow of information. Critics have labelled the bill “draconian”, the death of investigative journalism and a frontal assault upon democracy.

Analysts and writers have argued that the proposals are being pushed by politicians determined to stem the flow of stories about corruption, by a party aware that its support-base is steadily eroding, and a government which wants to foment confusion by bemoaning the state of “media transformation” (which, incidentally, it has done nothing to promote, having early on rejected anti-trust proposals to ensure diversification of media ownership). The media, says the ANC, is “contested terrain” - into which it is venturing with the launch of a new pro-party newspaper, The New Age. The paper, whose launch has been repeatedly postponed - in one case in the wake of the resignation of five senior members of its editorial staff - is bankrolled by an Indian family, the Guptas, who are close to the Zuma family and closely associated with its growing business interests.

There is widespread speculation that any act based on the present bill would be thrown out by the constitutional court. However, the danger must be that even any watered-down act will represent a parlous step on the road to Zimbabwe. In which case, the ANC may have to learn the hard way that South Africans have enormous experience in fighting tyranny. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData