May 12

The takedown of The Spear: necessary maybe, but sad all the same

The picture here has been causing a storm in South Africa and one of the country’s papers, the City Press of Johannesburg, has just been forced to remove it from its website. The image, by a South African artist Brett Murray, portrays South African president Jacob Zuma in the style of Soviet artists painting Lenin, but with one significant difference below the waist. (New readers start here).
The story can be told in two columns by the City Press’s editor Ferial Haffajee. At first she stood out against the bullying and the threats; then, fearful of the threats to her own staff and to the paper’s street sellers, she took the image off the site “out of care and fear”. As she writes, she was sick of the personal abuse. I can’t imagine that being a single, Muslim woman newspaper editor in South Africa is easy at the best of times (she was the first Coloured South African to edit a major paper). Threats of violence and abuse won decisively in this ugly time.

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Nov 11

South Africa: the future ain’t what it used to be

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.

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Aug 10

R W Johnson on South African media law

Illuminating and characteristically trenchant piece in Standpoint magazine from the very knowledgeable R W Johnson about the background to the proposed new media laws in South Africa (first posted about here). Johnson, who lives in South Africa, is precisely the kind of politically incorrect writer at whom these new laws are aimed.

Johnson, an academic-turned-journalist who is incapable of turning a sentence which doesn’t make somebody somewhere indignant, refers to rows that have been going on about his writing about South Africa in the London Review of Books. Coverage here.

In my earlier post about South Africa, I said that South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma was once of a very small number of politicians who had been idiotic enough to sue a cartoonist. I did not know at the time that this select band also includes the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It may not be a coincidence that Turkey’s political class has authoritarian instincts not unlike those of South Africa’s ANC.


Aug 10

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.

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