In a declaration published in all main Sunday newspapers, the South African National Editors Forum said media restrictions proposed by the ruling African National Congress threatened free expression that was the “lifeblood” of the country’s democracy since the end of apartheid era rule in 1994. Those proposals include a new media law and a special tribunal for journalists.
One major newspaper even began running small notices alongside important stories that tell readers, “you would not be reading this story” if new media laws are passed.
The statement signed by 36 of the country’s prominent editors called for restrictions posed by the proposed Protection of Information laws and the tribunal to be abandoned immediately.
It appealed to the ruling party to “abide by the founding principles of our democracy” enshrined in the constitution that ended apartheid rule and its harsh media controls.
“Human dignity is indivisible from freedom of speech,” the group said.
It said free access to information lay “at the very heart of the struggle for freedom” championed by President Jacob Zuma’s governing party.
The new laws would allow the government to classify a broad range of material that is currently not secret. Under the new law, it would be illegal to leak or to publish information deemed classified by the government, and the offense would be punishable by imprisonment.
Critics of the legislation say it does not allow for the public interest to be taken into account in exposing corruption or incompetence by top officials.
The media tribunal proposed by Zuma’s party would also be given powers to rule on media content and impose penalties on journalists.
The fears of an onslaught against the media were highlighted on Wednesday by the arrest of a reporter who wrote a series of articles for the South African Sunday Times on alleged corruption by senior officials and police commanders.
Mzilikazi wa Afrika was detained for 48 hours and had his computer, notebooks, files and a mobile phone seized during investigations into allegations of fraud, forgery and handling a forged document.
The reporter’s arrest, reminiscent of media repression in neighbouring Zimbabwe, was a rare incident in South Africa after the end of apartheid, the editors’ forum said.
There were brief but isolated arrests of journalists, including reporters who encroached into a crime scene whose arrests were not politically related.
In Sunday’s edition of his newspaper, Wa Afrika said police who searched his home ransacked wardrobes and drawers in his bedroom, overturning his mattress and searching under the bed.
“Having one’s notebooks seized is any journalist’s biggest fear. They contain details of confidential sources,” he wrote.
Last week’s edition of The Sunday Times carried a report by Wa Afrika implicating top police officials in plans to lease a new headquarters building from a wealthy friend and ally without following regular tender procedures.
Denying any wrongdoing in that deal at a news conference, police chief Gen Bheki Cele described Wa Afrika as “a very shady journalist, very shady”.
Militant youth leaders of the governing party have been in the forefront of calls for tight media curbs.
On Saturday, youth league leader Julius Malema branded journalists as “dangerous”.
“They think they are untouchable and they can write about anything they like … those who engage in unethical activities must be locked up,” he told a youth meeting in the city of Bloemfontein. AP