Press Freedom's Not Just Another Word…

Cape Times (South Africa), September 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

Press Freedom's Not Just Another Word…


BYLINE: Malene Breytenbach

Freedom of speech is the life-blood of democracy. It makes governments accountable. South Africa has experienced alarming incidents of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. These were rightly disclosed to the taxpayers, the citizenry, by the media. The public has a right to know. Freedom of speech, which leads to the disclosure of wrongdoing, is enshrined in our constitution. Now the ANC wants to take us back to the dark days of ever-encroaching state censorship.

The ANC has been in power since 1994, and the opposition has been weak. Now the ANC has put forward proposals to limit free speech and the alleged excesses of the media. It has accused the media of being "untransformed" and "elitist". The proposed Media Tribunal is seen by many media practitioners as a reincarnation of the old Publications Control Board, with its draconian prohibitions. In 1963, in the era of John Vorster as minister of prisons, the Publications Control Board was established mainly to curb reporting on prison conditions and prisoners after the Rivonia trial. This was only the start. Censorship grew tentacles that reached into the press, literature, radio and television, increasingly strangling, sucking the lifeblood, from free speech.

Once again the threat of censorship looms large. The kind of clamp-down that took place under the previous regime is something to be feared. Should the proposed Protection of Information Bill be passed, we will once again experience the secrecy and censorship we experienced under the National Party government, especially during the successive states of emergency.

Appealing to the Constitutional Court is a drawn-out process. We need to voice our objections now, without delay, before the strangling of freedom of expression and access to information can increase.

Access to state information is a constitutional and human right. Should the proposed Protection of Information Bill be passed, state documents pertaining to maladministration, corruption or unlawful activity by officials or politicians protected by the bill, may be destroyed. The bill would also allow state officials to reclassify documents as secret or confidential. Politicians or officials guilty of wrongdoing would be protected. A transgressor such as Jackie Selebi would not be brought to book.

During the period 1965 to 1990, the National Party government perceived the greatest threat to its power as being communism, and the rise of the liberation movements, the foremost of which was the ANC. Hence the states of emergency and the insidious censorship.

The NP perceived dissidence and criticism as threatening, ultimately leading to its downfall. Its clampdown started with censorship of the media, which were under severe pressure to report only what the government approved. Most radio and television broadcasting in South Africa was controlled by the government.

Restrictive legislation proliferated. The South African press found itself fettered by more than 100 laws that severely curtailed news of major public importance. Editors and journalists were increasingly harassed, threatened and intimidated. The stranglehold of censorship in South Africa increased as the Publications and Entertainment Act 42 of 1974 gave the Censorship Board burgeoning powers.

The act was amended in 1977, 1978 and 1979. Books, motion pictures, periodicals and other publications, including those of university origin, were censored by a Censorship Board with excessive powers for an administrative body in a so-called democracy. No other measure in the country had a more devastating effect on the freedom of publication. All factual material became subject to control.

In time, only the newspapers that were members of the Newspaper Press Union (which largely toed the government line) were exempted from the Publications and Entertainment Act 42 of 1974.

The Advocate General Act 118 of 1979 (referred to as the "press-gag bill") made it possible for members of Parliament accused of alleged corruption to refer the accuser (including journalists) to the advocate general, who would then ensure that such adverse publicity was curtailed. …

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