The brave new world of transparency that was a mark of the new South Africa is in rapid retreat, writes Raymond Louw in an article for the Helen Suzman Foundation's Focus magazine.Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â From the attitude of civil servants to media inquiries to a slew of new legislative measures, secrecy is the new watchword.
Government transparency to the media, so evident in 1994, is in rapid retreat.
In the wake of the euphoria generated by South Africa's first
democratic elections in 1994, the customary surliness and unhelpfulness
of the civil service towards the anti-apartheid media gave way to a
warm and welcoming friendliness and willingness to be of service.
Almost overnight, there were new, fresh voices answering the civil
service phones, and the striking thing about them was their readiness
to supply information and answer questions.
The apparent delight in answering even awkward questions and providing
information went on for a few years before one started to sense that
the willingness was being overlaid by hesitation and temporising which,
in many departments, grew steadily stronger.
And so South Africa emerges 14 years after those first heady days of
freedom to see its freedoms now being encroached upon, restrictions on
the free flow of information are being steadily applied and others
In many national and provincial government departments that cheerful
willingness to help has been replaced by surliness, obstruction and
Reporters now speak freely of the many difficulties they face in trying
to obtain information. Some government departments have centralised the
information supply process so that only one person is empowered to
answer media questions.
Several years ago Mosiua Lekota, the defence minister, issued an edict
that all information supplied to the media had to be approved by his
office beforehand. That instilled a feeling of fear throughout the
department, ensuring that no questions would be answered before the
answer had gone through the time-consuming practice of being vetted by
the minister's minions. Many officials in the department have given up
on answering questions.
The health ministry has also imposed restrictions on officials answering media questions.
A cult of censorship is being nurtured. Departments ask the questioning
reporter to call back later, but when they do cellphones are switched
off. An increasing complaint from journalists is the actual refusal to
answer questions or the withholding of information. Requests for
information are often referred to other departmental officials who
cannot supply the answers.
Another tactic gaining currency is to request questions to be faxed or
e-mailed. They are not answered timeously or are not answered at all.
There are also instances of misleading or inaccurate information being
given out. Some reporters are asked to request the information via the
procedures of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, a
time-consuming process that, if followed, would result in whatever
information was eventually supplied being hopelessly out of date.
At certain police stations only "good news" stories are issued, and
news of violent crime grudgingly supplied only when reporters pose
direct questions. This sunshine journalism approach has also become the
practice of several parastatals.
The latest form of censorship by the police has overtones of tyranny. A
reporter or photographer is arrested at a crime scene on the grounds
that he or she is interfering with the police in the conduct of their
This has become a reflex action by some police officers when photographs are being taken of their conduct at a crime scene.
Several months ago Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi announced a
restructuring of police information services, intended to prevent
police on the beat from giving information to media by limiting this
role to officers at provincial level. After the media protested, Selebi
amended the system and asked the media to give it a try – but the media
say it is not working.
The police have erased images from photographers' cameras. This
occurred when President Thabo Mbeki visited a medical clinic in
Pretoria for a check-up, and again when Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the
deputy president, had a meeting with Joyce Mujuru, the Zimbabwean
vice-president, at a Johannesburg hotel.
But perhaps the prime case of police censorship was the eviction of
reporters from the magistrate's court when then Jacob Zuma, the the ANC
deputy president, appeared on a rape charge. Attempts were also made to
snatch reporters' notebooks when they covered the appearance of four
police officers in a Germiston court on theft and attempted robbery
The legal process is increasingly being exploited to censor the media,
the biggest victim being the Mail & Guardian, which has been the
subject of several urgent court applications for interdicts to prevent
the paper from publishing exposÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©s about illegal or questionable conduct
and corruption. Several of these applications have failed, but
invariably the paper had to wait several days before being able to
publish, incurring expensive legal fees and costly stop-go production
Other papers that have suffered similar attacks are the Sunday Times
and The Sunday Independent, indicted from publishing the Danish
cartoons that offended Muslims, and the Saturday Star, which, however,
won when a coin dealer tried to gag it. Individually, these attempts at
muzzling the media do not make much of an impact, but when compiled
into a list they constitute a formidable indictment of official
The antagonistic attitude of some of the country's leaders towards the
media provides state employees and others with the excuse for their
attacks on the media.
Government leaders are particularly sensitive to criticism, and there
has been much to criticise under the subject headings of corruption,
which has assumed epidemic proportions; misconduct; maladministration,
with the Eskom power-generation disaster being a prime example; the
deterioration of hospital services; and, of course, poor service
delivery at local government level.
Such stories have been highly embarrassing to government leaders who
have denigrated critical journalists, accusing them of "lack of
responsibility", besmirching South Africa's good name, and racism. The
latest charge is that the media is engaged in regime change.
Ruling-party ire bubbles over from time to time on the ANC presidential
website, ANC Today. One of the most scathing attacks appeared when
President Thabo Mbeki held the presidency of the ANC and was probably
penned by him.
After reference to a claimed inaccurate press report, it stated that
"it confirmed the message that the readers of our newspapers are well
advised to treat everything that is published with the greatest
scepticism, because, in all likelihood, it might be false.
"For a long time already, we have complained about this phenomenon,
according to which some in the media obviously understand that 'freedom
of the press' means 'freedom of the press to invent news'."
There is no record of the ANC taking the article complained about to
the press ombudsman where its accuracy could have been tested.
Essop Pahad, the minister in the presidency, angered by exposures in
the Sunday Times about Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the health minister,
abusing staff at a medical clinic and drinking while under treatment,
threatened to impose a government-advertising boycott on the paper.
Appointment vacancies in government departments would not have been
advertised in the large appointments advertising section of the Sunday
The intention is clear, to reduce the paper's revenue, resulting in it
cutting costs, which invariably means cutting back on news coverage, if
not on staff. It is a pernicious form of censorship, which a Botswana
high court ruled unconstitutional in that country.
This has happened to other papers in South Africa. One of them,
Grahamstown's Grocott's Mail – which also faces a freeze on contact
with the paper's editorial department – is challenging the advertising
ban in court.
Mlambo-Ngcuka, when she was minerals and energy minister, proposed
introducing legislation to compel journalists and civil-society groups
to "speak responsibly" on sensitive matters, failing which they would
be charged in court with incitement.
The proposal was forcibly condemned by the media but, though it appears
to have been placed on a back-burner, it illustrates the mindset of
On the claim that their offices, conveniently situated for nearly a
century near the debating chamber in parliament, were urgently needed
for accommodating interpreters and other staff, parliamentary officials
removed members of the press gallery to another building in the
More than a year later, those offices are still vacant, confirming the
media's view that the real purpose was to ensure that the press had
minimum access to MPs in the parliamentary corridors and their
In addition to all these efforts to curb media reporting, government
departments have been busy devising legislative restrictions. Though
anti-terrorism legislation, enacted at the behest of the United States,
has not been employed against journalists, it looms on the horizon as a
The more immediate legislative threat is the Films and Publications
Amendment Bill, which ostensibly seeks to stop children being exposed
to pornography or caught up in it as victims. The draft bill, however,
reaches out to restrict reporting on other issues – which journalists
say is censorship – the reporting of propaganda for war, incitement to
violence, descriptions of sexual conduct and hate speech. The media has
vigorously protested against this legislation, but ANC parliamentarians
are doggedly pursuing it.
Then there is the National Key Points Act, originally introduced by the
apartheid government to protect important buildings requiring security.
It is being reintroduced in a much broader form and is also vigorously
opposed by media and legal groups as unconstitutional.
But the cherry on the top for the ANC, and a corresponding low point
for journalists, is the proposal mooted by the party at its Polokwane
conference in December that a statutory media tribunal be set up to
regulate the media and deal with complaints from the public against the
Jessie Duarte, the ANC spokeswoman, spelt it out in these terms: "We
believe there is a need for a place where the print media can be held
accountable for things they say that are absolutely not true." She
added that the ANC regarded the press's own self-regulatory ombudsman
system as "toothless" and inadequate.
The ANC view of the ombudsman is based on vague accusatory generalities.
Despite all the protestations by the ANC that it upholds media freedom,
journalists believe that such a body would be used to censor and punish
the press for inaccuracy and wrongdoing as determined by the ANC. This
results in the constitutionally unacceptable – state control of the
Within the media itself there are constricting influences, including
low salaries and lack of resources in newsrooms, a suspicion that
publishers seeking maximum profits ignore their mission to keep the
public informed, and a concentration of ownership, which reduces
Even so, many newspapers still run expensive and time-consuming
investigative journalism. This shows that South Africa's media is
indeed vibrant, despite the gathering restrictions.
* Raymond Louw is editor and publisher of the currents affairs
newsletter Southern Africa Report and African representative of the
World Press Freedom Committee. This article first appeared in the Helen
Suzman Foundation's Focus magazine. The article was reprinted in the Sunday Independent on 3 August 2008.