South Africa

Media Watchdogs Condemn Proposed Legislation

A supporter of the former South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma reads the Sowetan newspaper outside a courthouse in Johannesburg. (Photo: Fati Moalusi /AFP-Getty Images)

Media watchdogs in South Africa are demanding changes to proposed government legislation that could drastically curtail press freedoms and force editors to submit entire newspapers to regulators before publication.

If passed by parliament, the Film and Publication Amendment Bill 2006 would delete a clause that currently exempts print and broadcast news media from the same type of pre-publication screening and scrutiny applied to films, computer games and magazines.

The bill has alarmed media freedom organizations in a country that only recently shed draconian apartheid-era laws that clamped strict regulations on the press.

"One hopes that this proposed amendment is just a bungle, because it is mind-boggling in its ramifications," said Raymond Louw of the South Africa National Editors' Forum (SANEF), one of many media freedom-monitoring groups demanding a longer period of public consultation on the amendment.

"In theory you would have to send the whole newspaper to them before you published ... Under this bill you wouldn't have been able to publish evidence from [former Deputy President] Jacob Zuma's rape trial, because it might have offended," he added.

The Film and Publication Board's (FPB) mandate is to classify "films, videos, DVDs, computer games and certain publications for their suitable age viewership," and to protect children from potentially "harmful, disturbing or inappropriate" material.

Three other organizations — the Press Ombudsman, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission — currently regulate the news media in South Africa, leading critics of the proposed amendment to ask why the FPB is needed as a fourth regulator.

"What is worrying about the amendment, if it goes through, is that the entire news media in South Africa will suddenly be brought under the watch of the FPB," said Na'eem Jeenah of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI). "There are already other organizations committed to regulating broadcasting, so their roles would suddenly be undermined ... It would be an impossible situation."

The FPB defended the proposed amendment, saying critics were misinformed: "When people say we will censor the media it is not what we have in mind," chief executive Shokie Bopape-Dlomo told IRIN.

"It is not at all practical for us to read entire newspapers before they are published. The idea behind the proposed changes is to protect children, and not to interfere with the work of the media," she said. "Adults have the right to access information, and we are not going to change that."

Disturbing Trend

Even if parliament does not pass the amendment, critics say its very existence has revealed a disturbing trend towards censorship in South Africa, a country widely upheld as a bastion of media freedom on a continent pockmarked with oppressive regimes.

In the 2005 worldwide press freedom index, published by watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, South Africa ranked a joint 31st with Australia out of 167 countries, one place below France and above countries such as Japan, Spain and Italy.

Neighboring countries like Mozambique came in at 49 and Botswana at 60, although Namibia was regarded more free at number 25.

"We started in 1994 at the end of apartheid with a lot of press freedom in South Africa, but there has definitely been an erosion," said Louw. "Some unacceptable legislature still on the books goes back to the apartheid era, and we want it scrapped or amended."

Media monitoring groups were particularly concerned by what they said was a lack of public consultation on the proposed amendment. SANEF, FXI and the Media Institute of Southern Africa — the country's three main media freedom groups — are all pressing the government to extend consultation on the bill, which closed on Thursday, Aug. 10.

They acknowledged that the amendment contained a "provision for exemption" for news organizations, but said in practice the exemption would be only a tenuous "licence to publish," which could be revoked at any time.

"We would very much like to talk with the government and get them to extend this consultation period so changes can be made," said Jeenah. "Media organizations have not been consulted about the bill and it is a quite serious matter that could affect the whole of society. It is very worrying."

Bopape-Dlomo said the FPB was open to discussion. © IRIN

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]