The bid for Johncom by people  close to government and the ruling party can't constitute a threat to press freedom, writes Business Day in an editorial.  Far more worrisome are other developments, like the threat by Essop Pahad, Minister in the Presidency, to cut advertising from the Sunday Times.

Business Day writes in an editorial:

THE press freedom debate threatens to get out of hand.

The fact is that whoever is bidding for, or who may already have a little of, Johncom — publisher of the Sunday Times — a change of ownership cannot logically constitute a threat to the freedom of the press.

What threatens press freedom are laws or the behaviour of people with access to raw power. If that is the case, then while there are indeed real threats to press freedom in SA, one of them can’t be the putative bid by Koni Media to buy Johncom. Scary, yes, for editors and writers who may find themselves the targets of new owners.

But owners of whatever political hue have a perfect right, with their own money, to hire whom they want to edit their newspapers. If they get it wrong they endanger their investment. The rest is cant, though not unamusing. Newspapers at Johncom’s main rival, the foreign-owned Independent group, are making merry at the discomfort of the Sunday Times, whose dominance they have never been able to dent.

Independent titles have recently become regular publishers of columnists fervently supportive of President Thabo Mbeki and managed to run a full spread yesterday on the Koni matter without once mentioning that some Koni shareholders are currently active in government (and presidential) service.

But while the men of Koni Media may not threaten press freedom, there are threats that really do exist. One is Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad.

Pahad is close to Mbeki and wants the government to remove its considerable advertising from the Sunday Times. This is mainly recruitment advertising, bread and butter for the newspaper. Without it the Sunday Times would be a very different business. Pahad’s view is that the government has the “right” to advertise where it chooses, and he, on behalf of it, is angry at recent coverage of the minister of health.

Two encouraging things to note about this are that Mbeki has not publicly supported this position and that the advertising concerned really has nowhere else to go.

A second threat is from the African National Congress (ANC), which feels itself hard done by in the press and which now wants to discuss establishing “tribunals” to sit, somehow, in judgment of stories. ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama recently railed against cartoonists making fun of politicians. One draws ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma with a shower coming out of his head. He complained that the cartoons needed more “context” and, anyway, shouldn’t appear on pages carrying serious articles.

Such a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of newspapers makes the looming Film and Publications Bill easily the most serious threat to the right of South Africans to a free media.

Touted as a measure against child pornography, the bill allows for prepublication censorship, but it’s clear that in the wrong hands it could extend to non-pornography.

Ngonyama could soon be arguing that newspapers should not be allowed to insult politicians. If the bill is passed, he would have an ideal and ready-made vehicle for hobbling news and comment.

Punish papers that publish child pornography. In addition to the usual criminal sanctions, one transgression could mean, say, a year of pre-publication censorship. But a blanket approach opens the law to abuse, and, in the current climate, abuse there will most certainly be if the bill is passed in its current form.

*This editorial appeared in Business Day on November 13.