There are very few spectacle sadder than watching a political movement which has worked for freedom become corrupted to the point where that same movement starts closing freedom down.
Today the South African parliament, dominated by the ANC, passed by a large majority a media law which will restrict and constrain independent journalism in that country. Indeed, the law seems designed to squeeze, chill or eliminate independent reporting. The state is going to be accountable to the state.
A few years ago, I sat at a table at a conference in Cape Town with Jacob Zuma, the lunchtime speaker. At the time he was widely tipped to become president and duly did. Zuma’s speech was platitudinous and he avoided almost all the questions on the media. At the time he was taking the truly unusual step of suing a cartoonist. But despite the discretion of his words, Zuma’s loathing of the media was plain to see: his body language and flinty stare conveyed eloquent disgust for the privileges and airs of journalists. I assume that he is savouring his revenge.
There are no doubt problems in the conduct of South Africa’s media. Given what we’re hearing at the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking, it’s hardly the moment to be throwing stones from London. But – briefly to state the obvious – the answer to misconduct or excess by reporters and editors is not licensing and control by the state. This is not an exotic, “colonial” or particularly new idea and it is well expressed by many prominent South Africans of all stripes.
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.