South Africa has among the freest media in Africa,
even though senior government officials had on occasion tried to muzzle
the press “through judicial censorship”, according to Raymond Louw,
chairperson of the Press Council of South Africa, writes Phakamisa

He told a Power Reporting Workshop panel discussion titled “Of Muzzling and Meddling- How free is the press in South Africa?” that government officials demonstrated sensitivity to press criticism.

Louw mentioned incidents ranging from court interdicts against newspapers to security guards intercepting photographers when President Thabo Mbeki visited a Pretoria hospital for a check up. In that incident, images were removed from a camera.

In some cases, provincial and local authorities had withdrawn advertising from papers that reported critically. A disturbing feature was the pro-government role adopted by the SABC, he said. SABC radio was much more independent in gathering news than television, said Louw.

He added that South Africa was fortunate to have groups that defended media freedom.

In Kenya, parliament had passed law which forced journalists to disclose confidential sources on demand, but fortunately the Kenyan President had not signed such legislation. In Tanzania the media operated under highly draconian and repressive laws, said Louw.

Louw pointed to the concentration on profit by newspapers as a deficiency in the approach of newspaper management, but stated that profit was important in order for newspapers to defend court cases and threats of withdrawal of advertising.

Another panelist, Jane Duncan of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), said in spite of more media campaigns, press freedom seemed to be deteriorating in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

South Africa did have media freedom problems and this was worrying given the dominance of South Africa in SADC. This sent negative signals to other SADC countries who saw South Africa as best practice, said Duncan.

She added that many SADC countries retained old repressive colonial laws. Such old laws had been concocted with contemporary Anti-Terrorism Bills which created an unsuitable environment for the media, said Duncan.

News of journalists being attacked in protests in Soweto,  harassed by police and death threats to a Mercury photographer by a businessman in Pinetown reflected how media freedom was under attack in South Africa.

Journalist Fred Kockott noted that criticism of the media for the number of inaccuracies was justified.
Louw said that skills assessments of newsrooms by the SA National Editors Forum showed that accuracy was a concern, although levels of inaccuracy were not as high as one would expect given the tight deadlines, lack of resources, and shortage of staff in the newsrooms.

Commenting on an ANC policy document that, among other things, calls for a media tribunal, Duncan said the document contained positives that needed to be highlighted.

For instance, she said the ANC had raised the importance of media diversity and acknowledged the importance of the Media, Diversity and Development Agency (MDDA).

Duncan said that the threat of strict media regulations would be averted if the media took issues of media access and representation of the poor more seriously. If the media did not, the government would continuously accuse them of not representing the public interest.

Nicole Fritz, of the Open Society Foundation of SA, said it was the function of the press to expose corruption, dishonesty, graft and perpetrators.

In South Africa where there was a degraded political opposition, the role of the press was very important. She said the investigations by the Sunday Times into Health Minister  Manto-Tshabalala Msimang exposed how ordinary people had been denied rights to dignity and equality.