South Africa’s press freedom: the tipping point

It’s a sad but plain fact that underground political movements, however excellent their democratic aims, are sometimes run by people who are themselves a little challenged in the tolerance and liberalism departments.

When South Africa created a new, post-apartheid constitution in 1994 that documen swept away the media controls which had been used for many years by the white-majority government. The new freedoms created have not been free from controversy (they never are), but have played a role in a building a varied, vigorous and independent news media.

To cite only one example, the media played a significant role in revealing allegations against Jackie Selebi, the ex-commissioner of police who was recently jailed for 15 years on corruption charges. The government vilified the journalists who broke the story but in the end failed to quash the controversy.

South Africa is not formally a one-party state, but its governance is dominated by the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC’s leaders have had enough of press freedom and introduced a draft bill which will drastically curtail it. If the bill reaches the statute book in its current form, South Africa will tip towards the authoritarian state which at least some ANC leaders wanted all along. It would be a miserably sad outcome.

For the detail of what is proposed and the developing row see here and here. Angry comment from the FT’s Michael Shapinker and a rich fund of opinions on the excellent South African Daily Maverick.

Speaking of shortages in the tolerance department…let it not be forgotten that Jacob Zuma, the sleazeball thug South Africans have elected as their president, is a member of the select band of politicians who have ever sued a cartoonist. I had the opportunity a few years ago to ask Zuma what he hoped to achieve by legal action against some one making fun of him. Needless to say, he did not answer the question. Neither did he smile.

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