'Media may be under dire threat once more'

It seems the media in South Africa is again under dire threat of “anti-freedom” legislation reminiscent of the apartheid era, a group of three former newspaper editors said on Monday.

The three, who each spent decades opposing press censorship in the apartheid era, issued a joint statement on the draft Protection of Information Bill—now before Parliament—and the proposed statutory media tribunal.

Leaders of the freedom-fighting African National Congress, of the grand young United Democratic Movement, and all stalwarts who opposed apartheid would remember it was almost 20 years to the day that the press in South Africa was able to declare itself free at last, Harvey Tyson, Rex Gibson and Richard Steyn said.

“Yet there are signs now that all media may be under dire threat once more. The threat is naïve, but dangerous.

“It appears to come in an uninformed attack by a few legislators who don’t like criticism,” they said.

‘Freedom is killed that way in most dictatorial states’
Not one, but two separate anti-freedom weapons were coming out of a corner of President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet.

The first was the Protection of Information Bill, which—even if shorn of its follies and evil—would remain a serious threat to freedom of information.

This kind of law would almost certainly be used at some stage as a blunt instrument by some demagogues proclaiming their love of democracy.

They would find a mosquito on the pretty face of freedom, and use this form of legislation as a sledgehammer to kill it. Then they would accuse the splattered mosquito of the “murder of our heroine”.

“Freedom is killed that way in most dictatorial states,” the editors said.
“We’ve seem it all before. And, under apartheid, many times.”

But even worse was the second blunt instrument being forged by the democratic government—a proposal to create an “independent” authority to discipline the media and stop “unfair” criticism.

“We choose to believe that the ANC and South African Communist Party are proposing this out of ignorance of the lessons of the past.”

All should be aware that successive apartheid governments tried to enforce this blatant form of popular censorship no less than eight times in 48 years—and failed every time, simply because the device, in every form, was too blatant and utterly crude.

If any legislators did not understand why this was so, they could easily find out from any of South Africa’s independent institutions and universities, whose mission it was to uphold professional standards of journalism.

‘Don’t do it’
The friendly advice that anti-press government members needed at this early stage was: “Don’t do it.”

“Don’t do it, because the inferences in the Info Bill, and the setting up of an uncalled-for legal authority to oversee media ‘excesses’ will injure democracy and besmirch the name of South Africa,” they said.

These acts, especially the appointment of such a statutory body, would mark the first step on to a “dark and evil path”.

Together they would more than cancel out all the international goodwill the country earned through hosting the Soccer World Cup.

“Pause and think for a moment how the entire world’s free media will, with real justification, react.”

The proposal in itself created an ominous precedent. If it succeeded it could cause history to leave a black mark against its individual perpetrators and against the current ANC and its alliance.

In the meantime, all South Africa might suffer because of it.

“For the sake of everyone, and in the name of democracy and freedom, please don’t even begin to try to do it,” they said.

Tyson is former editor-in-chief the Star, former member of the International Press Institute, and board member of the former Argus Company.

Gibson is ex-editor of the Rand Daily Mail, and Steyn former editor-in-chief of the Star, the Witness and a member of the International Press Institute.—Sapa

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