/ 6 November 2007

A lesson from the Minister Mentor

The annual conference of the International Bar Association, the world’s biggest meeting of lawyers, was officially opened in Singapore recently by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Yew, Singapore’s long-time ruler and a lawyer by training, was in no mind to soft-peddle his prescriptions for the island state’s success. ”If I had permitted freedom of expression,” he confidently announced, ”I would not be here tonight and neither would all of you.”

He scoffed at the ranking system of Reporters Without Borders, which he said, with not a little indignation, ”would have you think Singapore was like Zimbabwe”. Many of the lawyers laughed along with him, clear in their own minds that Singapore with its obvious prosperity, security and efficiency — a consumer’s paradise — was the very furthest thing from Zimbabwe.

During the conference, at a session titled State Intervention in the Media, the Zimbabwean spectre again came to the fore. Lawyers from Singapore and Malaysia had been asked to speak about their experience defending media against the often enormous defamation claims brought by the respective governments and their allies. That same day the Financial Times had issued a grovelling apology in a bid to head off a large defamation suite threatened by Yew, his son, Singapore’s current prime minister, and his daughter-in-law, the head of Singapore Airlines.

Beatrice Mtetwa, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer acclaimed for her media defence work, was called on by the chair. Mtetwa explained what it was like to arrive at police cells in Zimbabwe where she suspected her clients were being kept. She described circling the outskirts of the cells, calling their names in the hope they would hear and reply, ”because the police are never going to tell you if they’re there or not”.

She also told of the threats she and other colleagues receive in the course of undertaking media defence work. The session chair turned to the lawyers from Singapore and Malaysia and asked whether they’d had similar experiences. Almost shamefacedly, they shook their heads.

It now appears that the Zimbabwean government isn’t content merely to jail journalists, firebomb their presses and threaten their lawyers. It is said to have released a hit list of 15 editors and journalists perceived as hostile to the government. In the ambiguous language so characteristic of authoritarian regimes, an instruction is given that those named are to be placed ”under strict surveillance and taken in on various dates”. The first name on the list is that of ZimOnline editor, Abel Mutsakani, who was shot and seriously wounded in Johannesburg in July by unknown assailants.

But, if Zimbabwe seems a somewhat aberrational global case study, it’s not all that exceptional in its own neighbourhood. In Angola, prominent journalist Graça Campos, the owner and director of the country’s leading independent newspaper, Semanario Angonese, has been sentenced to eight months in jail and fined $250 000 after being convicted of slandering former justice minister Paulo Tjipilica, now the country’s ombudsman. Campos will not be able to appeal the finding and remains in prison despite his lawyer having lodged an appeal.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Higher Education Minister Sylvain Ngabu recently lured two journalists, Heustache Namunanika and Didier Lofumbwe, to his office with the promise of an interview. On arrival, he instead ordered police to beat them for having dared to critically report on Ngabu’s decision to suspend the chancellor of a local university.

With attacks on media freedom wielded with such blunt objects and made with such impunity in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the large defamation suits wielded by the likes of Singapore’s government, or the withdrawal of state advertising as threatened by some quarters in the South African government, must seem positively benign and inspire relative envy in media defenders.

To be sure, they’re not benign: while less dramatic, they are still stifling. And while Lee Kuan Yew may scoff at any comparison with Robert Mugabe, he is wrong to smugly suggest that Singapore’s policies are beyond reproach. At its best, a free press protects against government’s deception of the people. That the policies of Luanda, Kinshasa and Harare make deception seem an almost gentle art shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Singapore, for all its comforts, is democratically deficient or that for sub-Saharan Africa media freedom can’t simply mean an end to the brutalising of its media.

Nicole Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, which has recently launched a media defence programme