Recent government threats against the media in SA put the country more closely in line with practice in other countries of Sadc, writes Lloyd Kuveya of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre’s new Media Defence Programme in Business Day. But SA journalists still have far more freedom than many of their counterparts, and the country should use its reputation on media freedom for regional advancement.

Lloyd Kuveya writes in Business Day:

reports of the imminent arrest of the Sunday Times editor and a senior
journalist prompted extreme distress, here and abroad, among defenders
of media freedom. If the response was a little overanxious (given
official claims that there are no such plans), it is in part because
such arrests, far from making SA exceptional, would confirm that it
intended to follow the norms of the region. Despite the African Union’s
(AU’s) affirmation of the importance of freedom of expression as a
“cornerstone of democracy and a means of ensuring respect for all
rights and freedoms”, there are few places today where freedom of
expression, particularly media freedom, is more in peril than in the
southern Africa region.

In June, the Lesotho government issued a decree
ordering all government departments and parastatals to desist from
advertising with Public Eye, an independent newspaper with the largest
distribution of any local print media. This decree is in clear
violation of the AU Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression
in Africa (2002), which provide that “states shall not use their power
over placement of public advertising as a means to interfere with media

In a separate case, Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha
Mosisili is preparing to appear as a witness against Thabo
Thakalekoala, a prominent journalist charged with “failing to report
subversive activity” under Lesotho’s 1984 internal security law.
Thakalekoala was detained after he read out a letter on air, allegedly
written by unnamed army officers, which called for the arrest of
Mosisili and his entire cabinet for corruption. The testimony of so
powerful a figure from the executive branch not only threatens press
freedom, including the traditional freedom to protect sources, but also
compromises the integrity of the judicial process.

In Angola, prominent journalist Graca Campos, the owner
of and director of the country’s leading independent newspaper,
Semanario Angonese, has been sentenced to eight months in jail and
fined $250000 after being found guilty of slandering former justice
minister Paulo Tjipilica, now the country’s ombudsman.

It is reported that Campos will not be able to appeal the
finding and remains in prison, even after his lawyer lodged an appeal
for the sentence to be suspended. This is a serious violation of the
right of every individual to have their cause heard.

In a similar case, where journalist Rafael Marques was
convicted and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment on a charge of
abuse of the press resulting in injury to the president of Angola, the
United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the conviction and
sentence constituted an unlawful interference with the right of freedom
of expression. Commenting on the Marques case, the Open Society Justice
Initiative said that according to international and domestic
jurisprudence, criminal sanctions for expression are capable of
severely undermining the vigour and quality of democratic debate.

In Swaziland, police routinely break up peaceful and
lawful assemblies of civil society groups in clear violation of
Swaziland’s new constitution’s provisions of freedom of expression and
assembly. And the Democratic Republic of Congo has recently banned 22
private television channels and 16 radio stations, in part, it appears,
to suppress the dissemination of views critical of the government. It
is reported that two journalists from another private television
channel were recently beaten up on the express orders of a government

Most disturbing of all, the Zimbabwean government is said
to have released a hit list of 15 editors and political reporters from
the private media perceived as being hostile to the government. The
listed journalists are to be placed “under strict surveillance and
taken in on various dates”.

Incidentally, the first person on that list is ZimOnline
editor Abel Mutsakani, who was shot and seriously wounded in July by
unknown assailants in Johannesburg.

And the list goes on …

Yet as long as SA continues to be perceived to have a
stable and positive press freedom policy, there exists real potential
to leverage its reputation for greater freedom of expression within the
region more broadly.

Of course, it isn’t only for SA to teach the region
about press freedom. Indeed, Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad
would do well to take note of a Botswana High Court decision of 2001,
which held that the government’s removal of advertising from two
publications critical of the government constituted a violation of the
publications’ constitutional rights to free speech.

But for the most part, journalists and editors working in
southern Africa must envy the comparative freedom of their South
African counterparts. Should SA not use its reputation for press
freedom for regional advancement and choose instead to borrow from the
policies of its neighbours , should it choose to send its editors and
journalists to prison for doing what it is they are best required to
do, it is hard to see how change will ever come.

* Kuveya is the project lawyer for the Southern Africa Litigation Centre’s new Media Defence Programme.This article first appeared in Business Day on 25 October 2007.