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South Africa Seeks to Curb Media as Critics Cry Foul

The South African government would have authority to classify any official document as being in the “national interest” and jail anyone possessing it without authorization for as long as 25 years under proposed legislation.

The ruling African National Congress has also called for a government-controlled tribunal to probe complaints against journalists, who have clashed with officials by reporting on scandals involving leaders including President Jacob Zuma.

These moves may criminalize investigative reporting, making it harder for the media to expose corruption, and violate post-apartheid guarantees of free speech, according to newspaper editors, civil-rights groups, churches and opposition parties. The World Bank said corruption is one of the biggest constraints on companies operating in South Africa, in its July 29 report on the country’s investment climate.

“We see these measures as a closing down of expressive space,” Ayesha Kajee, 42, executive director of the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute, said in an Aug. 5 interview. “We actually think it’s unconstitutional.”

The government has no intention of trying to muzzle the press, spokesman Themba Maseko told reporters Aug. 5 in Pretoria. Zuma and several senior officials intend to meet with media owners and senior editors to address their concerns, Maseko said. A parliamentary committee examining the bill debated it briefly in Cape Town today, before adjourning until Aug. 13.

Banned Newspapers

The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, and other opponents of the legislation say it harks back to the apartheid era, when the government banned several newspapers and detained a number of journalists without trial. The Democratic Alliance plans to challenge the law in court on constitutional grounds if the ANC-dominated parliament passes the measure, party leader Helen Zille told reporters Aug. 5 in Cape Town.

“You cannot have a situation where public officers would have the discretion to be able to classify whatever they deem to be in the national interest,” Fola Adeleke, research manager for the Cape Town-based Open Democracy Advice Center, said at a July 21 public hearing.

“We are confident the bill will withstand constitutional muster,” Enver Daniels, the chief state law adviser, told legislators July 27. Some of the objections to it are “quite emotional and hysterical,” he said.

Ease Tensions

The government withdrew a similar measure two years ago, after editors and civil-rights groups objected. Even if a compromise is reached before a case goes to court, it isn’t likely to ease tensions between the ANC and news organizations. The relationship has deteriorated steadily since the mid-1990s, as the media reported on scandals involving senior officials including Zuma, 68, and former police chief Jackie Selebi, 60.

The National Prosecuting Authority charged Zuma, the ANC’s former head of intelligence, with corruption, racketeering, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion in 2007. The charges were dropped on April 6, 2009, just weeks before he was appointed president. Selebi was sentenced to a 15-year jail term last week for accepting bribes.

“Attitudes started hardening” after Zuma took over, when the media reported that ministers he appointed spent millions of rand on motor vehicles, said Mondli Makhanya, 40, editor-in-chief of Avusa Ltd. newspapers. “It was accepted that it was a new era, a government that cared about the people, and those reports really showed them up.”

Corruption Index

South Africa ranked 55th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

South Africa’s newspaper industry is dominated by four companies: Naspers Ltd. in Cape Town, Independent News and Media Plc, based in Dublin, and Johannesburg-based Caxton and CTP Publishers and Printers Ltd. and Avusa. They will face competition next month when the New Age begins publication.

The daily is run by the Gupta Group, which also controls Sahara Computers Ltd. The Times of India Group has a stake in the publication, which will be edited by Vuyo Mvoko, a former political editor of state-owned South African Broadcasting Corp. Former Cabinet minister Essop Pahad is an adviser.

Since the legislation was introduced in Parliament March 9, Naspers shares have gained 4.3 percent, Avusa advanced 6.3 percent and Caxton has fallen 8.2 percent.

A July 29 ANC discussion document lists complaints against the press, including that whites, who make up 10 percent of the population, exert disproportionate control through ownership of all major media companies. Some newspapers have shown “an astonishing degree of dishonesty” and adopted an “anti-ANC stance,” the document says. The party will decide at a conference next month whether to make it official ANC policy.

Media Complaints

An Office of the Press Ombudsman currently investigates media complaints. The ANC accuses it of bias toward the newspapers that fund it and appoint the staff, and has called for the new tribunal, which would be accountable to parliament.

On Aug. 4, police arrested Sunday Times reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika, who has written stories about government corruption. An Aug. 8 article on the newspaper’s website said he was charged with fraud, forgery and distributing a fake document. It quoted him saying the document was faxed to him and he never published a story about it. He was released on bail and is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 8.

Musa Zondi, a spokesman for the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations, said in an Aug. 4 interview that wa Afrika’s arrest had nothing to do with his work as a journalist and declined further comment.

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