“Black” day for press freedom in South Africa
by Dominique van Heerden
The death of democracy?
South Africans are mourning what they call the “death of democracy” in their country after the ruling African National Congress (ANC) passed a controversial bill that makes it illegal to obtain or report on classified state information.
The Protection of Information Bill
Widely referred to as the ‘Secrecy Bill’, the Protection of Information Bill was passed by the National Assembly on Tuesday. This piece of legislation will now to go to the National Council of Provinces for further approval.
Tuesday’s outcome was widely expected, but still the public and media reacted to the vote with shock and dismay, many saying it stinks of “apartheid-style tactics”.
The day itself was dubbed “Black Tuesday”, a reference to “Black Wednesday” in 1977 when the apartheid government banned two newspapers and some anti-apartheid groups.
Not in Our Name
Journalists and some members of the public wore black to mark the occasion, and newspapers altered their design in protest, running headlines like ‘Not in Our Name’.
Protestors descended on the ANC’s headquarters in Johannesburg, and outside parliament’s main gates in Cape Town.
Once news that the measure had been approved spread, protestors lowered the flags around parliament to half mast.
In a country where corruption is rife, it is little wonder both the media and the public have reacted so furiously to this new measure. Critics of the legislation say it’s simply an attempt by the government to cover up corruption.
Recent high profile cases have seen some prominent South African politicians at the centre of allegations ranging from bribery to drug trafficking.
Another case saw the country’s former chief of police convicted for accepting bribes from a drug dealer and sentenced to 15 years in prison -- that case was widely exposed by the media.
President Jacob Zuma faced a corruption trial of his own just before he became president in 2009.
The case was dismissed on a technicality, suggesting there had been political interference.
And worryingly, the head of South Africa’s anti-corruption body, recently told The Economist that some 6000 senior government officials have failed to declare their business interests as required by law.
The ANC has publicly vowed to tackle corruption, but the public aren’t convinced. And one cannot blame them given this track record.
At play here is a wider issue of democracy post-apartheid; some people say the current state is an abomination to what Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters fought for.
Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu weighed in on “Black Tuesday” saying:
“it was insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism… and that makes the state only answerable by the state.”
A new reality
Mandela himself called freedom of the press the “cornerstone to a healthy democracy”.
But for now journalists in South Africa are trying to make sense of a new reality.