Just weeks before the dawn of democracy in South Africa, soon-to-be president Nelson Mandela shared with journalists what he saw as the role of a free media in a democracy.
The future looked bright for South Africa’s media when, in his keynote address to the 1994 World Congress of the International Press Institute (IPI) in Cape Town, Mandela said, “A critical and investigative press is the lifeblood of democracy. The press must be free from state inference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution, so it can protect our rights as citizens.”
He added: “The removal from South Africa’s statute books of the scores of laws, ordinances, regulations and administrative measures that have empowered government to abridge the rights of South African citizens to know the truth, or which represent the freedom of the media to publish, or which limit citizens’ rights to express themselves are, in our view, essential for a democratic political climate.”
Back then, as the media basked in the halcyon glow of Uhuru, anything seemed possible after the dark and repressive days of apartheid when journalists were harassed, arrested, imprisoned and banned just for doing their jobs.
So for some of the foreign delegates it may have come as a surprise when media freedom activist Raymond Louw delivered a sobering overview of the state of media freedom in SA.
Attempts to persuade government to review and repeal or amend about 12 apartheid-era restrictive laws still on the statute books and which “are viewed as unconstitutional” had been unsuccessful, he said.
He ended with this gloomy conclusion: “… the optimism generated by the arrival of democracy in 1994 has become clouded, if not tinged with pessimism for the future of press freedom in South Africa.”
In a show of solidarity with campaign to stop the proposed Protection of State Information Bill – dubbed the Secrecy Bill – the IPI General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on President Jacob Zuma to send it for Constitutional Court review.
“Doing so would send the message that this and future South African governments will not hesitate to engage in a comprehensive legal review of legislation in order to protect the freedoms of the press and expression, as well as freedom of information,” reads the resolution.
A hush had earlier fallen over the room as Alison Bethel McKenzie delivered her executive director’s report on the state of media worldwide, which recorded starkly just how dangerous it has become for journalists to work in some countries.
Last year 119 journalists died in the line of duty, a slight decline from the 133 who died in 2012, while 20 have died so far this year, she said.
Syria was the deadliest country for journalists for the second year running, with 16 journalists killed in 2013, down from the 39 who died in 2012. Dozens more have been wounded or are being held captive.
“Even in countries not in the throes of a terrible civil war, like Syria, journalists walk with targets on their backs. In the Philippines, at least 13 journalists died while impunity flourishes in Russia where the “vast majority” of the 64 deaths of journalists the IPI has recorded since 1997 remain unresolved”
But it is not only the safety of journalists that is a threat to press freedom; McKenzie cited Sudan where the pressruns of nearly a dozen papers were confiscated by security agents.
In Egypt the Freedom and Justice newspaper and several broadcasters have been banned, while in Venezuela, “government restricted foreign currency exchanges that affected imports of newsprint, effectively forcing newspapers to limit pressruns or suspend publishing altogether”.
In Jordan, scores of websites blocked by government almost a year ago remain restricted because they do not have government-issued licences to operate. In February, Turkey approved measures that, in their present form, give the government power to block websites without judicial oversight and to engage in mass surveillance of Internet users, McKenzie said.
“The Syrian Electronic Army, an ad hoc hacker group that backs the Assad government, has wreaked havoc with opposition and foreign media, including the Financial Times and The New York Time.”
There have also been a few successes. like in Mexico where the IPI has pushed the authorities to improve security for media workers covering drug lords and organised crime, and to end impunity by launching swift investigations into attacks or threats against media and journalists.
It not just violence that journalists face, said McKenzie. “Governments have an arsenal of laws that are being turned against our colleagues… laws on sedition and terrorism, for instance. Criminal defamation and insult laws are another example.”
But despite the worldwide assault on media and journalists, McKenzie sees signs for optimism in some African countries.
“Twenty years ago, the vast majority of South Africans had few rights, were excluded from the country’s immense prosperity, and the media were under horrific pressure not to rock the boat. In many other African nations… like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania… journalists struggled under the grip of strongmen. Today, these countries boast some of the most dynamic media markets on the continent.”
Follow Raymond Joseph on Twitter @rayjoe
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