Liesl Jobson - 2010-10-18
South African press now only “partly free”
– Liesl Jobson
15 October, 2010
This article first appeared on Poetry International’s website. Liesl Jobson and Vrye Woord’s Charl-Pierre Naudé represent South Africa on the panel. Note the interesting articles on South African writers, in particular Adam Small, who could not attend performances of his own acclaimed play Kanna hy kô hystoe under apartheid regulations.
It was a disconcerting day in late April when Freedom House, the international monitor of global press freedom, downgraded South Africa’s status from “free” to “partly free”. A clarion call sounded to the world at large about the erosion of our cherished liberty, that hard-won freedom of speech that exists only within the confines of a democracy.
It was a yet more disturbing day in early August when – following a meeting of the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) to discuss the sinister Protection of Information “Secrecy” Bill and Media Appeals Tribunal being mooted by the ANC – the award-winning investigative Sunday Times reporter, Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested just days after his exposé of the questionable dealings of the new Chief of Police.
Although a fleet of police cars arrived to capture the journalist, not one officer possessed a warrant for his arrest and photographers recording the event were obstructed in their duty. Wa Afrika’s seclusion without access to legal representation in an unknown venue, his interrogation at 2 am and the raid of his home and confiscation of his laptop without a search warrant, all hark back to the darkest days of apartheid.
That bail was initially refused, that the High Court secured his immediate release following the Sunday Times’s urgent application, and that the National Prosecuting Authority later dropped all charges echoes the concerns cited by Freedom House.
Later in the month, a group of some fifteen foreign and local journalists staged a sit-in outside a parliamentary committee room in protest of an attempted closed-door meeting with the national broadcaster, the SABC. This time an urgent interdict from SANEF resulted in the in-camera discussion being overruled. A few days later, concerned journalists bearing placards called for the protection of media freedom, gathering outside Parliament, their mouths sealed with tape in a gesture of ceremonial protest.
These highly complex and multi-faceted pieces of legislation are both discrete and overlapping. A groundswell of protest that is likewise reminiscent of the country’s past has resulted in grassroots organisations demanding the safeguarding of the right to know. A week of activism is now planned while Parliament is in session later this month.
But how do we understand the subtleties of the matter at hand? The short answer is “with difficulty”. Chair of the SA Press Council, Raymond Louw, who is also the deputy-chair of SANEF’s Media Freedom Committee and deputy president of SA PEN, is superbly positioned to offer a bird’s-eye summary of the topic.
“We don’t have sufficient detail on the proposed media tribunal to know what’s in the ANC’s mind at this point; we’ve made some suppositions and heard hints, but can’t properly assess it for lack of details. But anything imposed by an outside body, in this case, Parliament on the media, could have very serious consequences for society, and appears unconstitutional. Clause 16 enshrines the freedom of expression and freedom of the media,” he said.
He pointed out that the media is the only commercial institution in the country that has the protection of the Constitution. Even lawyers do not have constitutional protection like the media has under that clause.
A self-regulatory Press Council is currently in operation. Devised by the media, it abides by a code drawn up and accepted by the media, and runs itself as a media institution with a retired journalist as the ombudsman. “If the public gains control of such a body, it is, by definition, no longer self-regulating. It would be imposing external standards, no matter how bold, how full of integrity the representatives of such a council would be. The standards imposed would not be media standards and, therefore, would transgress Clause 16.”
So, what would the real aim of a media tribunal be? Is it what it professes to be, a body intended to raise journalistic standards, or is the intention to create a “standard” taking the form of a prohibition? The stated intent to imprison journalists and fine newspaper organisations heavily surely looks unconstitutional. Self-regulation demands that a newspaper found in error publishes an apology, correction, or a reprimand. In 86 other press councils in the democratic world, this is how self-regulation operates.
The ANC intends to set up an independent panel to adjudicate on ethical and professional offences by media practitioners and threatens punitive sentences and steep fines. “However,” said Louw, “it has not adequately proposed what the media tribunal should do, how they would elect the body, and who would comprise it. Imposing such constraints on the media from outside the profession certainly amounts to censorship.”
The criticism of the status quo, which has only come from the ANC, has led to an industry-wide review by the SA Press Council, an independent organisation that was set up by the media industry and is composed of representatives from SANEF, the print media, magazine publishers, independent publishers and media trade unions where they exist. “It deals only with the press. Membership is not compulsory, for this would construe constraint. Representatives from the respective media are invited to be voluntary members, and to allow themselves to be adjudicated under aegis of the Press Council,” said Louw.
To this end, Poetry International (South Africa) distances itself from Communist Party member and poet Jeremy Cronin’s statement that an independent institution mechanism is needed and that self-regulation in the media isn’t working.
Regarding the Protection of Information Bill, a little historical context is helpful to understanding the issue: the original bill, which was passed by the National Party government to classify state secrets has been in use since 1982. The decision to refine it and to remove the more draconian provisions resulted in a proposed amendment that was put to Parliament in 2008, but was withdrawn after numerous objections.
“Brought before Parliament again this year,” said Louw, “it’s as bad as the amendment was, if not worse than the original. It contained provisions about what kind of information could be classified and deals with matters of ‘national interest’ rather ‘national security’. It’s far too broad.”
It is of significant concern that various safeguards have now gone from the 2008 amendment. For example, the requirement that those doing the classification should bear in mind the need for transparency. Louw said it was a serious omission that civil servants were not encouraged to closely consider their obligations to civil society. This is a violation of the spirit of the Constitution.
Veteran journalist Max du Preez, another vociferous opponent of the Bill, said it “gives cabinet ministers, civil servants, mayors, town clerks, heads of parastatals, and a whole range of people, the right to classify anything as secret. Anything. All they need to say is ‘It’s in the national interest’, which is not defined in the Act.”
Louw cited the “Johannesburg Principles”, which narrowly define what type of information could be classified as secret. “It should be as narrow as you can make it. With national interest brought in, that concept has been blown. The Johannesburg Principles should apply to this legislation because they provide a democratic approach to the classification of state secrets.”
He said another aspect of the Constitution that had to be upheld, in addition to Clause 16, was the need for transparency and open governance. “It is imperative that there should be transparency of operation. This should be in the forefront of people’s minds – an unusual but very cherished aspect of the South African Constitution – and this bill runs counter to that.”
This greatly simplified account of events does not do proper justice to a hugely complex matter, but aims to contextualise Poetry International (South Africa)’s wholesale rejection of censorship in any guise or form. The links included below offer a fuller picture than is within the scope of this editorial.
Poetry International (South Africa) is a signatory to the Right 2 Know campaign that was presented to the South African government and will be present at the protest march to Parliament on 27 October.
And now for the poets whose exquisite words we celebrate all the more in this unlovely moment. Adam Small, Angifi Dladla and Mafika Gwala are men who knew too well the extreme unpleasantness of living under the silencing shadow of censorship. Browsing through a second-hand book shop this week I chanced upon a first edition of Small’s Sê Sjibbolet (1963) and was immediately struck by the prescience of the dedication: “Vir die eenvoudiges wat dink en ook mag praat” (“For simple folk who think and who may also speak”).
Here are a few lines, which it must be conceded have been taken out of context; yet they talk to the issue that weighs so heavily on South African poets, who, mercifully, still have a voice.
Small’s and Gwala’s poetry rings through the decades since it was first written, landing very close to home; Dladla’s most recent compositions give voice to the delicate position that poets occupy.
Substitute “politician” for “prophet” in Adam Small’s “Doemanie” and there is an entirely relevant series of questions for the governors of the day:
you a Prophet a Jesus?
you wit yo palace-house?
you wit yo airmobile?
you wit that kinda sad smile a yours?
an yo tears
an yo huffanpuff up onna pulpit
an yo plate piled high wit braaivleis pertaties an meat?
How aptly Angifi Dladla’s “Song of Eza Kwakho” talks to the topic:
This chance moment must not
empty us, dirty us, and –
dishonour our sacred names.
Don’t go that route, lover
of long ago! Next to you, oh
I’m vulnerable, vulnerable.
Were censorship to return, how would Mafika Gwala’s “The Children of Nonti” know what was the truth and what was not?
Nothing is more vital than standing up
For the Truths that Nonti lived for.
Then shall there be Freedom in that stand
By the children of Nonti.
Poetry International’s featured poets have historically spoken truth to power. In their stanzas and metaphors, their symbols and rhythm, they have never feared to look under the rock. The world will be much the poorer if the poets of South Africa are no longer free to excavate the truth.
Herewith the latest issue of Poetry International:
and the South African editorial:
and a related link on BOOK SA:
Freedom House: “Restrictions on Press Freedom Intensifying”
Journalism. co.za: “A guide to the current debate on threats to freedom of speech”
BOOK SA: “Update on the State’s Shaka-Like Pincer Movement Against Free Speech”
LitNet: “Die ANC se aanslag of skrif” (Afrikaans writers, academics and publishers in discussion in Afrikaans about the ANC’s attack on press freedom)
André Brink’s New York Times op-ed: “A Long Way from Mandela’s Kitchen”
International PEN: “Resolution Against the Protection of Information (‘Secrecy’) Bill”
SANEF: The South African National Editors’ Forum homepage
The Press Council of South Africa homepage
Right 2 Know Campaign: “Stop the Secrecy Bill”
Right 2 Know: related links on Facebook
The South African Civil Society Information Service: “The ANC Turns on the Press (Again)”
Jeremy Cronin in Umsebenzi Online: “Do We Need a Media Tribunal?”
The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, UN Doc E/CN.4/1996/39 (1996)
SOS Support Public Broadcasting: Public Broadcasting in the Public Interest
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