A delegation from revolutionary Cuba at the opening ceremony of the 17th World Festival of Youth and Students in the Republic of South Africa on Dec. 13, 2010., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
South Africa's Rulers Face Off Against Newspapers
By JACKIE BISCHOF
Wall Street Journal
JOHANNESBURG—A rift has opened between South Africa's ruling political party and the nation's newspapers, stoking a debate over the durability of democratic freedoms in the continent's largest economy.
South African journalists are alarmed by recent government proposals they say reflect a growing bid to crack down on the press, including a bill that could jail journalists for disclosing what officials deem state secrets.
Media members, as well as civil-rights, business and labor groups, have voiced concerns, with some citing a broader increase in hostility among some ruling-party members and police against those who portray officials in an unflattering light.
The government says it is trying to curb sensationalistic coverage that in its eyes conveys an impression of a state under siege. "When the government has an outbreak of acne, the media call it leprosy," South Africa's government spokesman Jimmy Manyi said in an interview. "They blow everything out of proportion."
Tensions over the media are part of a searching national debate over the political course of a key African democracy, which held its first multiracial elections in 1994 and enshrines media freedom in its Nelson Mandela-era constitution.
Back then, a media that was often critical of apartheid-era policies helped to sweep the African National Congress into power. Observers say some members of the ANC now chafe at a media that isn't always in the ruling party's corner as it seeks to control its message and maintain a broad mandate after 17 years of unrivaled rule. How the party responds, these people say, could have regional implications.
."South Africa...stands as an example for the rest of Africa in relation to democracy and freedom," says Anton Harber, head of journalism at Wits University in Johannesburg. "So when South Africa sets a bad example around media freedom issues, it's a bad example for the rest of the continent."
Shortly after local government elections in May, a coastal newspaper, the Herald, reported ANC official Nceba Faku had said the ruling party was in an "important battle" with the media over local political influence and had called on supporters to burn down the newspaper's headquarters in response to its coverage of opposition parties. Mr. Faku objected to the coverage, saying he had been misquoted.
Mr. Manyi has recently pledged to increase circulation of a monthly government newspaper and in early June said the government would buy television spots for officials. He has also vowed to restructure an official advertising budget to avoid supporting newspapers he says distort the government's image while favoring papers that give officials "bang for their buck."
The South African National Editor's Forum, an alliance of print and broadcast journalists, called Mr. Manyi's advertising proposal a "bribe and a threat."
The editor's forum met late last month with a government minister to discuss what it called "deteriorating relations" with the government's communications arm. The minister assured the press the government wouldn't use its advertising budget to interfere with editorial independence, the group said. The government didn't discuss specifics of the meeting.
Mr. Manyi has said his comments about government ad spending were misconstrued. "There never was any intention to bribe media to write favorably about government," he said.
Some in government view the media as irresponsible, relying on leaks from within political parties to write sensationalist exposés, and ignoring government successes. An ANC spokesman described the industry-appointed press ombudsman, whose rulings against newspapers often lead to small corrections or notes printed on inside pages, as "toothless."
"There are a lot of legitimate complaints about the way in which the media report," says Anthony Butler, a professor in politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, including the fact that they are urban focused and tend to be quite "poorly informed about what the government does and why."
South Africans can lodge grievances about the media through complaints commissions that are funded by the industry but include retired judges and other panelists from outside the media. They can also sue for libel under the country's media laws, but such cases can take years and deep pockets, say legal analysts.
Media groups are fighting against the government's latest attempt to retool South Africa's Protection of Information Bill, which could result in jail terms for people publishing information classified to protect what is deemed national security. The bill's most recent draft would allow any state department to classify information and would have resulted in minimum prison sentences of three to 15 years for individuals revealing it.
Last month, under pressure from public protests, parliamentarians from the ruling ANC agreed to remove the minimum proposed sentences and amend the bill to grant the right to classify information only to state security departments.
Some of journalists' frustration is directed at Mr. Manyi, the government spokesman who is spearheading the pushback against the media. Mr. Manyi took the job in February, spurring controversy because he also kept his post as the president of the Black Management Forum, a group that advocates for increased black leadership in companies.
Mr. Manyi has said he doesn't understand where the conflict arises, describing his role on the BMF as his "social responsibility program."
In May, reporters covering parliament staged a walkout after Mr. Manyi refused to discuss a brief government statement on who South Africa favored as the next chief of the International Monetary Fund.
For some South African journalists, the tense ties recall a far more antagonistic relationship the press had with a white-minority government under apartheid, a system of racial segregation that lasted up until the first democratic elections in 1994. Then the ANC viewed the media as an ally, as journalists were arrested and jailed reporting government abuses.
The bonhomie faded after the ANC came into power, says Ferial Haffajee, editor of local newspaper City Press. That's because the media reverted to its traditional role of government watchdog, she says, adding: "I don't think they've ever made peace with that shift and learned how to manage it."
Members of the ANC—including party and country president Jacob Zuma—have lashed out at the media for what the officials see as sensationalist and unfair reporting. After standing trial for charges of rape in 2006, on which he was acquitted, Mr. Zuma brought several defamation lawsuits against media outlets, as well as the popular satirical cartoonist, Zapiro, who depicted him in a 2008 cartoon preparing to rape the blindfolded Lady Justice. Many of the defamation suits remain outstanding. Mr. Zuma later dislodged his predecessor Thabo Mbeki to become president.
In an effort to "fill the gaps" of the mainstream media, one of Mr. Manyi's proposals sees the publication of a monthly tabloid-sized newspaper distributed in community service centers across the country in several of South Africa's 11 official languages. The newspapers are free and popular for job advertisements and stories about government work, says community information officer Robbie Senoelo.
He doesn't think the newspaper will take readers from mainstream newspapers. "For some enlightened people, variety is always good. You want to see different perspectives," he says. "I personally feel, the more, the merrier."
Season of Discontent
Some points of conflict between South African media and government:
Spokesman: Journalists have jousted with chief government spokesman Jimmy Manyi, particularly over his refusal to expand on cabinet press statements. Mr. Manyi says he doesn't want to put words into the mouths of cabinet members.
Police Coverage: Editors say police have prevented reporters from covering a crime scene, removed equipment or withheld information for coverage. Police have met with a journalist group and agreed both parties should be allowed to do their jobs without any problems, but complain coverage is negative.
Media Appeals Tribunal: A proposed media watchdog would answer to parliament. Journalists say this would give ruling politicians undue power over the press.
Protection of Information Bill: Government wants to revamp old bill governing what information is secret. Civil society groups say definitions are too broad and its punishments, including jail time for whistleblowers, too harsh.
Government Information: Government seeks to ramp up circulation of its monthly newspaper, buy television spots for ministers and is restructuring its advertising budget. Editors say such moves amount to financial threats to newspapers that don't report favorably on government.