The "development agenda" and "national security" have been invoked to curb press freedom in all post-colonial African countries.
A bag of mixed fortunes and a chequered history of freedom, semi-freedom and anti-freedom characterise the continent's press both before and after independence, according to a maiden publication by the African Union (AU), Au Herald les Cahiers de L'UA, (January-June 2011), which scrutinises the African media landscape and its contribution to democracy.
There are salutary lessons for South Africa's journalists in the experience of the rest of the continent. Kabral Blay-Amihere, the chairperson of the national media commission of Ghana, notes how in the 1960s, when African countries began to free themselves from colonial rule, journalism was an instrument of liberation.
Yet, ironically, the very press that supported liberation became one of the first post-independence casualties as new African leaders sought to consolidate their power by muzzling it. Within a mere decade of independence in most African countries, there was a sharp reduction in or even the destruction of privately owned newspapers. According to Blay-Amihere, the "development agenda" and "national security" were invoked to justify such interventions. The same arguments are being used in favour of a media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill in South Africa today.
Meanwhile, there is a host of bodies and declarations supporting democratic governance and transparency -- and thus a free press -- including the Pan African Parliament and the Windhoek Declaration on Independent Media Development. Declarations get signed, but there are few outright condemnations when journalists are arrested or when the state closes down private newspapers, as Zimbabwe has done. Today, according to the AU publication, about 400 African journalists are in exile.
Gabriel Ayite Baglo, the director of the International Federation of Journalists, Africa Region, notes that the main independent enterprises on the continent are based in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.
In Kenya the main employers are the Nation Media Group and the Standard Group, with tentacles in Uganda, Tanzania and now Rwanda. In Nigeria the state pays the highest salaries and owns various radio and TV stations.
In South Africa President Jacob Zuma's friends, the Guptas, own The New Age newspaper. Its first editor, Vuyo Mvoko, who resigned before the planned launch, stated from the start that it would be sympathetic to government.
The ANC has desired its own newspaper since the 1990s. The New Age's salaries are said to be the highest in the industry, yet it costs just R3,50 a copy. Time will tell how deep the Guptas' pockets are -- and how far they will go for friendship.
South Africa's media situation is both robust and precarious. As in post-independence Africa, ruling parties often fail to accept that democracy is conflictual by nature. So "national security" and the "developmental agenda" are invoked. There are warning signs of a crackdown on the media.
Last year Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Africa was arrested at his workplace for being in possession of documents pertaining to a fraud case. Going further back, in September 2007 there was an attempted R7-billion bid for the country's biggest media house, Avusa, by Koni Media, the crony of then-president Thabo Mbeki.
In December that year the ANC passed a resolution at Polokwane asking Parliament to investigate the possibility of a media tribunal. Now the "Secrecy Bill" is before Parliament. With no public-interest defence, whistle-blowers and journalists could be jailed for up to 25 years for being in possession of a classified document and the Bill makes state documents very easy to classify.
There are five things South African journalists can do:
It's ironic that the AU has published information about -- and condemning -- the repression of journalists in Africa. That's an encouraging change from its usual head-in-the-sand attitude. South Africans must heed what happens to the media in the rest of Africa when governments become skittish.
Glenda Daniels is advocacy coordinator at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism
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