On October 19, 1977, the apartheid government of South Africa banned 19 news publications and organizations who stood with the Black Consciousness Movement, including, The World, the Sunday World, and Pro Veritas.
The National Press Club called on sympathizers to wear black clothes, ribbons, and armbands, and since then, October 19th has been referred to as Black Wednesday.
Now, 34 years later, some South African media groups refer to Tuesday, November 22, 2011, as "Black Tuesday". Why? That was the date the lower house of the South African Parliament controlled by the African National Congress (ANC) approved the Protection of State Information Information Bill, 229-107. The bill will allow the state to classify documents as "secret" in the name of "national interest". Anyone caught possessing such a document would serve 25 years in jail. The bill will be debated and voted at the upper house of parliament, the ANC controlled National Council of Provinces, before it goes to President Zuma to sign.[The Wikipedia page for South Africa's ruling political party the African National Congress (ANC) was temporarily "censored" in protest of the secrecy law, shown here]
When Governments Aim to "Own" The Media
South Africa's National Editor's Forum chairman, Mondli Makhanya, said the press corps were devastated
"watching the bill become law." As he put it:
"We never thought we would come here dressed in black to witness the Constitution of our country being betrayed by those who built it."
The motivations behind the bill are of course suspect. The media has been avidly covering the antics of the wife of the ANC's State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, convicted of running an international drug ring. We previously covered President Mbeki's threats against the media for their coverage of his AIDS and public health policies and corrupt public health minister. Two years ago, we wrote on President Zuma's successful bid to get the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) to drop 16 charges against him related to several billion dollars in bribes for arms deals, also well-covered by the media. More recently, the Sunday Times reported that Zuma's government spokesperson Mac Maharaj sued newspapers reporting about the 1.2 million French francs paid to his wife to facilitate arms deals. In the two years of Zuma's presidency, the press has fairly well documented this steady stream of allegations and misuse of official funds.
Hypocrisies of the Powerful
Perhaps there's no reason to ask then, if Zuma will sign the bill. Acronym Required has checked-in on the ANC's continued attempts to censor the vibrant South African media over public health issues over the years. Former President Thabo Mbeki expended hundred of thousands of spoken as well as written words typed into his weekly reports excoriating the media for covering the horrific conditions in hospitals, corruption, the lack of public infrastructure, the broken promises of his administration, and his twisted logic for not dealing with the AIDS crisis.
President Zuma seems to be taking it one step further by backing up rhetoric with more publicly forceful maneuvers. Last year we told parts of journalist Mzilikazi wa Africa's story of being kidnapped by the police as he was investigating ANC corruption in "South Africa'a Media Crackdown."
The officers who kidnapped wa Africa pestered him about his investigation of ANC officers in the Mpumalanga province. They tried to extract his sources. They trumped up charges accusing him of fraud, forgery and passing forged documents that were later dismissed, and tried to force him to sign an admission of guilt. Under the new law, the documents that wa Africa received about the corruption and murders in Mpumalanga would be illegal for him to possess.
President Zuma has vigorously put down widespread outcry against the secrecy bill. He said that concerns were absurd and proclaimed the ANC to be a vigorous defender of the constitution. He continually accuses journalists of trampling the rights of others, who must "have recourse through legitimate institutions". As Zuma said in weekly address (August, 2010):
"The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian? All institutions, even parliament, has mechanisms in place to keep them in check."
Zuma accused the media, as did Mbeki before him, of not "reflecting the society it claims to protect and represent". Worst of all, he said, deploying the usual ANC strategy, the media defames the ANC party that worked so hard against apartheid. This isn't just Africa's problem, he pointed out, using Russia as an improbable example:
"Let us move beyond the hysteria, let the real debate begin. Our first point is that before looking at what they regard as external threats and perceived external threats, the media should conduct introspection first. 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?'"
There's hardly a need to point out again, as we did last year, that using Russia, where investigative journalists and state critics regularly get murdered, to bolster professed ANC benevolence seems cynical and sinister.
Rebukes From Those Who Know
Many see the bill as a harbinger of more serious curtailments of freedom that the country has struggled to overcome in the 17 years since apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in an address about the Chinese suppression of Tibetans that the current ANC government was worse than the apartheid government, when "at least you could expect to eat." He said that by now you should expect a South African government to be "sensitive to the sentiments of the constitution", and continued:
"You, President Zuma and your government, you do not represent me. You and your government represent your own interests. I am warning you, as I warned the [pro-apartheid] nationalists, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government."
A strong independent media (if there is such a thing), and investigative journalism are keystones to democracy, in South Africa, America, and everywhere else. A strong democracy is critical to science, to commerce, to health, to welfare, and to all of civil society. South Africa's Bill of Rights supposedly supports these ideas, supports:
"freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research".
It also gives anyone the right to:
"Any information held by the state; and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights."
Constitutional scholars lay out excellent arguments why this bill is unconstitutional2, and the opposition party has said that if Zuma signs the bill, they would push for constitutional review in the Constitutional Court. Zuma's highly political evasion of charges against him, as well as other irregularities, have shown that the judiciary and other institutions are increasingly in the grip of the ANC. Snuffing out investigative journalism will accelerate that trend.
1 I should note that the move is not endorsed by smaller press who think that "Black Wednesday" should not be conflated with "press freedom" by major newspapers dependent on advertisers in their battle with the government over advertising spend. (Here's an article on that.)
2 The website Constitutionally Speaking has an excellent discussion of this issue, that I found unfortunately, after this was post was written. Go there for a thorough presentation of that scholar's reasoning and for the comment discussion that follows.
The 1987 movie Cry Freedom offers a look at a South African reporter muzzled covering the anti-apartheid movement and the suspicious murder of activist-hero Steve Biko. I liked the movie when I watched it a couple of years ago, although I have to warn you that the mainstream media reviews called the movie a watered down version of the real story, with Robert Ebert saying it was: "sort of a liberal yuppie version of that Disney movie where the brave East German family builds a hot-air balloon and floats to freedom." I'm sure it would be fascinating to compare their harsh criticism of the movie to the MSM watered down coverage of years of South Africa's apartheid, but I'll leave that for another time.