Media freedom is under threat in South Africa, cartoonist Zapiro warned at a discussion hosted at Wits University this week, writes Tamlyn Stewart in The Times.


Speaking at a discussion in Johannesburg on political cartooning, Zapiro, whose real name is Jonathan Shapiro, said: “I am concerned about freedom of the press. There are warning lights flashing.”

Zapiro said a press tribunal to judge stories, proposed by the ANC, was “an appalling idea”.

Signs of encroachment on press freedom included recent interdicts served on the Mail & Guardian .

Zapiro said pre-publication censorship, as allowed by the Film and Publications Bill — ostensibly to prevent the publication of child porn — was also a warning light.

The government’s threat to withdraw its advertising from the Sunday Times after it published reports critical of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was cause for concern.

Zapiro also cautioned against the planned acquisition of the media group Avusa [which owns The Times and Sunday Times] by Koni Media.

Commenting on Koni’s ties to high-profile current and former government officials, he said: “Considering the signs, and the harassment [editor] Mondli Makhanya has been put under, I’m not particularly confident they will leave the Sunday Times to do its own thing, and if there was a problem around that, it would be very scary in terms of press freedom.

“Luckily we have an excellent Constitutional Court that has a healthy respect for the public’s right to know, fair comment and freedom of expression.”

Zapiro , who calls himself a “freedom of expression junkie”, said: “I don’t gratuitously go out of my way to piss people off.”

ANC president Jacob Zuma is suing Shapiro for R2-million over cartoons which Zuma said have impaired his dignity.

Wits University journalism professor Anton Harber said cartoonists find themselves increasingly the target of criticism and attacks, and described Zapiro’s cartoons as being of “consistent quality and bite”.

Cartoon researcher Andy Mason said cartoonists are “emblematic of democracy” and warned that freedom of expression runs the risk of being “eroded by stealth”.

Click here to read the full report, posted on The Times website.