Chairperson of the SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) Jovial Rantao has warned that a set of new laws such as the Films and Publications Amendment Bill represent a new wave of threats to press freedom in the country, writes Andile Makholwa.


Rantao was speaking at an event jointly organised by Sanef and the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg to commemorate October 19 1977, also known as Black Wednesday when the then apartheid shut down several newspapers and banned many journalists.

He said while the past 14 years of democracy have enhanced media freedom in the country, editors have “a reason to be concerned about these pieces of legislation” being piloted by government as they have the potential to reverse some of hard-won press freedoms.

He said although the controversial Films and Publications Amendment Bill is not primarily aimed at the media, it has the implications of “introducing pre-publication censorship”.

As a last resort, Sanef has requested President Kgalema Motlanthe not to sign the bill into law after it was recently passed by Parliament.  

However, African National Congress (ANC) head of communications Jessie Duarte said the greatest threat to media freedom these days is not the state but newsrooms themselves.

She said commercial considerations in our print media tended to cloud editorial independence.
Homogenisation of content, lack of proper training, advertisers’ demands and juniorisation of newsrooms are other challenges facing present South African media.

She said the ANC believes in a free media, and encourages vigilant and deeper investigative and responsible journalism.
“Our view on the media is that it must be free,” she said.   

Duarte also took a swipe at the notion of self-regulation, comparing the Press Ombudsman to a toothless dog.   
“My honest view is that the office of the Press Ombudsman is toothless,” said Duarte.

She accused the Press Council of being partial to the media, and not giving prompt responses to complaints.
Duarte said the ANC was not comfortable with the fact that when citizens complain to the Press Ombudsman, they must first waive their constitutional right to take legal recourse if they are not satisfied with the outcome.

She said the idea of a media tribunal, first mooted at the ANC’s Polokwane conference, was not a popular idea within the ANC. It is one of the options currently under consideration to strengthen media accountability in the country.

Sanef also used the event to launch a handbook for South African media leaders entitled The Extraordinary Editor.

Co-edited by Guy Berger and Elizabeth Barratt, the book is a series of articles by the country’s leading journalists and media academics aimed at giving editors some ideas on how to effectively manage complex newsroom challenges whilst producing good journalism.