Press freedom debates and journalism scholarship in South Africa

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Kicking off our series on the media and democracy, Herman Wasserman highlights the role that academics can play in ongoing debates over media freedom. He focuses in on the role played by journalism scholars and educators in response to proposed reforms in South Africa. Herman is a Professor of Media Studies at Rhodes University and the editor of the journal Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies. This post is adapted from his introduction to the book Press Freedom in Africa: Comparative Perspectives

South Africa celebrates twenty years of democracy this year, and has just completed another successful national election. Its Constitution is widely seen as progressive and an important foundation for the deepening of its democracy.  It includes a Bill of Rights that protects freedom of expression, including freedom of the media. Recent developments in the media arena have however caused concern for the state of press freedom in the country.

These developments have widely been seen as representing a threat to freedom of expression that, at best, might have a chilling effect on journalism and, at worst, reverse the freedoms that have been won since the end of apartheid.

The first of these developments is a proposed Protection of Information Bill (POSIB) that is seen as having the potential to reduce the level of access to information, not only for journalists but also members of the citizenry and civil society generally. This Bill, which still needs to be signed into law by president Jacob Zuma, has the potential to prevent journalists, citizenry and civil society from accessing important information that could keep the security apparatuses of government accountable. The POSIB was first published for comment in 2008 under the leadership of then minister of intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, intended to replace an outdated Apartheid- and Cold War-era law on state secrecy dating from 1982. The Act aims to  protect ‘State information’ against ‘unlawful disclosure, destruction, alteration or loss’ and ‘regulate the manner in which information may be protected’. Opposition to the POSIB came mostly from the media and civil society organizations, the most prominent of which has been the Right2Know campaign.

The second development is a proposed statutory Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), suggested by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as an alternative to the current system of voluntary co-regulation by the press. The current system, in which citizens have a greater say in the regulatory processes of the Press Council, replaced an earlier system of self-regulation which the ANC saw as biased towards the media industry. As Jane Duncan points out, the ANC has been on the attack against the system of self-regulation since its National Congress in 2007. At the National General Council meeting in 2010, the ANC passed a resolution stating that the existing self-regulatory system for the print media was ineffective, and called on parliament to conduct a public enquiry into a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal.

Since these initial statements, the ANC seems to have softened its stance, allowing the Press Ombudsman to embark on a process of self-reflection and reform by way of a series of public hearings around the country. These hearings were, however, very poorly attended, drawing only a few representatives from industry and the public at large. At the time it was speculated that this poor showing might be taken as an indication of the poor support for the self-regulatory process amongst the public at large. The hearings were followed up by the establishment of a Press Freedom Commission under the chairmanship of a retired judge, the now late Pius Langa. The Commission recommended revisions to the Press Council’s code and procedures:  Stronger sanctions against offending publications are now in place, but the public also has greater representation on the Council. These changes seem to have lifted pressures off the press regulatory system for the time being, and the MAT has now been put on the back-burner.

Although they are two different processes, the proposed MAT and the POSIB have been taken together in public discourse to signal an alarming slide towards a media-intolerant environment in South Africa. The debate about the POSIB became especially heated, with its opponents drawing comparisons with apartheid South Africa that at times became exaggerated and analytically imprecise. Clearly the South African media after apartheid enjoys vastly more freedom than before the advent of democracy, and however disconcerting the renewed threats on media freedom may be, they arise from a different context and under different circumstances. Moreover, these threats can only properly be resisted if they are understood within the changing political, economic and social contexts. The intensity of the debate in the public sphere prompted more considered interventions from media scholars.

Indeed, from the beginning, journalism educators and scholars have raised concerns about these issues. In 2010, twenty South African journalism schools brought out a statement expressing fears about the effect of the proposed regulation on journalism in the country and its potentially negative impact on students. The statement noted that the South African media are not without fault, and that part of journalism scholarship’s role is to continue to point to these shortcomings and to suggest ways of improving the media’s democratic role. Such critique, it went on to note, can only bear fruit in an environment that ‘allows for unhindered investigation, the gathering of sound empirical evidence, and the free exchange of ideas’.

Further support came from international colleagues. Prof Joe Foote, convenor of the World Journalism Education Council, an alliance of 29 organisations that represents journalism educators and trainers worldwide, wrote a letter asking President Jacob Zuma to reconsider the proposed Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal.

In their public statement, the South African journalism schools undertook to research alternative ways of managing conflicts between media, state, business and civil society; and to create spaces for debate between the public and members of the media industry about the media’s role in a democratic South Africa. A colloquium was held at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa on the topic ‘Media, democracy and transformation since 1994: An assessment’. Journalism educators, scholars and researchers, as well as politicians, policy-makers and public intellectuals also engaged with the academic papers.

These papers have now been published as a special issue of the journal Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies and in book format as Press Freedom in Africa: Comparative Perspectives.

Despite the very specific focus on the current situation in South Africa, the important perspective provided by these papers is that press freedom in South Africa should be understood within a wider continental context, as well as against the background of broader social, political and historical processes. For instance, South Africa’s media system shows comparisons with other new democracies (such as those in Eastern Europe) and should be understood in the light of scholarship in the area of transitional societies. But while a comparative perspective on press freedom is useful, this does not mean that successful models of regulation can be transplanted from other contexts. Also important to note is that the press does not only stand in relation to the state – even though this relationship is often the one foregrounded in press freedom debates – but also in relation to society, which, in the South African case, is a highly unequal one where citizens have very different levels of access to the mediated public sphere.

These are the kind of perspectives that scholarship can provide, and which can prompt a slower, empirically informed and theoretical grounding to debates about press freedom that often tend to sacrifice light for heat.

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