South Africa's Media Crackdown

Note: Unfortunately, all The Times of South Africa links in this article have been paywalled.

South Africa's award winning journalist, Mzilikazi wa Afrika had been doggedly investigating government corruption, when he was arrested on August 4th by police outside the offices of his employer the Sunday Times. wa Africa1 had recently written a story about a shady real estate deal arranged by National Police Commissioner General Bheki Cele, a deal Cele vehemently denied was shady. A few weeks later, because of its shadiness, the deal was put on hold.

The journalist had also been investigating a story about some murders of public officials that took place in the Mpumalanga province, that police were failing to investigate.

Kidnapping and Treason Accusations for South African Journalists

He was held for 48 hours as police drove him from place to place. They stopped at his house and ransacked it, confiscating his computer and his eight year old son's, and taking his journalist notebooks - some 10 years old. He hoped they didn't bring him to the province of Mpumalanga where all the murders had taken place, and where those who were murdered appeared on a hit list that perhaps had his name on it. But they did. At one point the police dropped him at the Waterval Boven, Mpumalanga police station, where:

"one of the officers warned me that I was being left in this tiny town for my own safety. 'Don't eat or drink anything, we know they are going to try and poison you. These people want you dead' he said...."

Mzilikazi wa Africa tells his story of being shuttled about by police here.

After 18 hours of being "carted about in fear of his life", as the headline put it, he was read his rights.

"At 1:40am, I was taken back to Mapiyane's office, where the general introduced himself as the lead investigator in the case and read me my rights. He said I would be charged with fraud and defeating the ends of justice...He asked me to make a statement, 'to make things easier' for me. I told him I could not do that without my lawyer present. Mapiyane was irritated and a colleague of his told me I was giving them problems by writing stories about Mpumalanga [a province]."

"Five-and-a-half hours after I first got there, I was taken to the Nelspruit, Mpumalanga police station. It was 3:20am."

"At 8am my legal team finally had access to me...One of the questions the police asked was: "Have you either directly or indirectly been discrediting senior office bearers of the ANC in Mpumalanga?"

They asked him: "Are you destroying the image and integrity of the ANC in Mpumalanga?" The police grilled him on a story he had not published.

wa Africa charged with fraud, forgery and uttering (passing forged documents - because he had been faxed a fake resignation of a Mpumalanga government official). People believe wa Africa's harassment is retribution for his investigative journalism, or a concerted police attempt to ferret out his sources, perhaps potential whistleblowers in the Mpumalanga province .

The police intimidation of the journalist has sent chills through South Africa and the world, especially in light of two initiatives sought by the African National Congress -- the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunals (MAT).

"The Sword is Mightier Than The Pen"

That the sword is mightier then the pen is the joke passed among journalists, as the South African government brims with ideas about how to curb the still vibrant press -- unruly by government standards. Thus the detention of wa Africa, not too mention scarier trends like calls by a youth league of the ANC to convict the journalist of "high treason" hint at the draconian potential of these moves.

The government proposes media appeals tribunals (MAT), yet admits excellent ombudsmen system already in place. As well, a bill being discussed in parliament called unconstitutional by the national lawyers bar would impose 15-25 years jail time for journalists who fail to support vague notions of "national interest".

As former journalist Sej Motau, from the opposition Democratic Alliance, wrote

"It's not about journalists; it's about every one of us in this country, and I'd like to appeal to the people of this country. If we fall asleep on this one, and we think, 'Oh no, it's only about the journalists', we're making a big, big mistake."

Indeed, if people can't ask why they don't have electricity and why the government isn't following through on promises, then all South Africans suffer. And if the ANC government can classify information willy-nilly, imprisoning journalists and newspapers who don't pen their line, businesses are in trouble too. As the Independent Online writes:

"If passed, the bill would also restrict access to information from regulators and state-owned enterprises, which critics say could cut investors off from information affecting equity, treasury and foreign exchange markets."

Business Speaks Out

Foreign companies like ArcelorMittal (steel, Luxembourg), and Lonmin (mining, UK) are also rightly concerned. Both have already been subjected to the corrupt business practices that benefited President Zuma and his associates. Domestic businesses are likewise worried, policies that favor ANC sycophants undermine their profitability too.

The business press gets it. Michael Skapinker, commenting for the Financial Times, and R.W. Johnson, writing in the Wall Street Journal, led the (rather anemic) international outcry earlier this week. Unfortunately, Johnson's column in the WSJ (it's worth noting) introduced some confusion about what South African bill was at issue.2 Johnson wrote:

"the government plans a "Protection of Personal Information Bill," which would only allow reporting about people's personal lives with their consent. Heavy penalties would thus prevent any more reporting of Mr. Nizimande's wine-bibbing or of illegitimate children born to President Zuma's mistresses. This is accompanied by a new "Information Bill" proposal, which would impose penalties of up to 25 years in jail for reporting about anything the government declares to be a matter of national interest, itself defined broadly to include anything which may be for the advancement of the public good..."

WSJ has confused two bills. The "Protection of Personal Information Bill" can be found here at KPMG, Africa, and there's more information here at Deloitte. This bill deals with how organizations deal with private personal information, and the need for standards in the public and private sectors guiding how some information needs to be protected while other information needs to be accessible. KPMG writes: "Over the years, the principles contained in the Bill have become recognized as the leading practice baseline for effective data privacy around the world..."

The WSJ is the only place I've read Johnson's unique interpretation of the Protection of Personal Information. The bill has been heralded by some human rights advocates because it will protect victims. Could be abused by government? I'm sure anything could happen, but it would also be highly unusual for WSJ (and the FT) to oppose KPMG and Deloitte. Security of personal information is important to democracy, and security is also a growing business sector. Condyn, an IT security contractor, recently issued a press release seeking to clear up just this type of confusion between the two similarly named bills.

No, the bill that worries everyone is the "Protection of (State) Information Bill", the ANC controlled government's wild grab to redefine how government officials classify and release information. It basically gives government officials free reign to classify any secrets as they wish into "classified", "secret", and "top-secret". The media appeals tribunal would impose the government's view.

Don't Go Hysterical About Tribunals Zuma Says -- Russia is Sharing Their Media Strategy With Us?

Of course President Zuma and members of government insist that the African National Congress,(ANC), is not trying to muzzle journalists, and will not impose "draconian apartheid laws to gag the freedom of the press".

Of course Zuma says that while complaining extensively that media is a consolidated institution destroying the good of the nation on the other. According to him: "South Africans rebelled against the media in June-July this year, united in their diversity" during FIFA. They defied the "media fraternity" and its "chorus of division and negativity", he said, peddling the notion that South Africa would be a Disneyland of green grass, ball playing, vuvuzelas, and international celebration if not for the negative media.

The discussion document accompanying the paper gets to the meat of the ANC media crackdown and exudes an anti-liberal (in the economics sense) view, although there's some blatant hypocrisy underlying the pronouncement:

"Our objectives therefore are to vigorously communicate the ANC's outlook and values (developmental state, collective rights, values of caring and sharing community, solidarity, ubuntu, non sexism, working together) versus the current mainstream media's ideological outlook (neo-liberalism, a weak and passive state, and overemphasis on individual rights, market fundamentalism, etc)."

For journalists who resist being state messengers? Perhaps like the World Cup, it'll be loud droning vuvuzelas, kicks to the ribs, and shots to the heads. Zuma explains the tribunals:

"The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian?....During our State visit to Russia a week ago, Russian television was running a promotional jingle saying: 'How dependent is the independent media? Who pays for the news'?

Newspapers are profit motivated says Zuma, the the news isn't "independent". Therefore, why shouldn't the news be the megaphone of the ANC party? And what better example to reassure your countrymen of your intentions for the press -- than Russia? Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 153rd of 175 countries in the Press Freedom Index last year. As the International Press Institute reports, Russia remains one of the most dangerous places for reporters, a place where journalists are murdered with impunity. What a puzzling PR move. Is this a twisted way to get western investment? Or are public announcements about lessons from Russia on dealing with the media, just...governance as usual?

"Freedom" of the Press

With recent actions, the Zuma government has been compared to the oppressive states of Gambia and Zimbabwe. 37 of the country's editors signed a petition protesting the government's intentions to curtail freedom of the press. The international response, including that from top US media, is an unanimous call to drop the contentious bill and media appeals tribunals.

But the crackdown has been brewing for a while, and is not the first step the ANC has taken to sweep in some censorship. And the government has long derided newspapers and journalists who unveil information that doesn't paint the government in a favorable light. In 2007 we wrote about Africa's AIDS and public health crisis in hospitals, which the media persistently exposed. In response to the press attention, Mbeki pounded back in his own newspaper columns, including one Acronym Required dubbed "the mini-skirt memo". But Mbeki never did address the critical and deadly public health issues -- never in his whole term.

Mbeki's ANC consistently labeled anyone who criticized him as being unfaithful to the revolution, and Zuma seems to have picked up the same defense. This move to muffle the media more would be a blow for democracy, human rights, and business. But unfortunately, some countries have proven, like China and Russia and many others, that with the help of greed enabled complacency from US and Europe, freedom of information and freedom of press aren't necessarily requirements for state enrichment.

President Zuma urges people to "move away from hysteria dwelling on individual experiences". And he concludes: "We will use our right to express what we think. And we should not be silenced by claims of 'threats to press freedom'".

Acronym Required writes frequently about South Africa, especially issues involved the state's public health policies, HIV/AIDS progress, and media.


1a name he adopted meaning "of Africa"

2 No one would accuse these authors of being dedicated to politically liberal causes. Concurring with China, Skapinker this spring urged a ban on comment anonymity 'to promote civility', a trending meme that would slap a lid on many important forms of speech. While some people took exception to Skapinker's tedious idea, in one published letter to the FT editor, the writer agreed with Skapinker, and added that we should also identify motorists' identities via their license plates to promote highway civility, because as he noted absurdly, perhaps fooled by randomness or his own mind's machinations, people who drove cars with vanity plates were more polite.

RW Johnson for his part, recently outraged writers, academics, and civilians with a racist piece he wrote for the London Book Review. 73 signatories complained in a letter to LBR that his work was "often stacked with the superficial and the racist".

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