The official hostility to journalists is palpable

The front pages of South Africa's newspapers are regularly splashed with articles about politicians living it up at public expense in a country blighted by poverty.

Reporters recently pounced on news that a black empowerment deal meant to benefit “previously disadvantaged” South Africans under government guidelines was enriching a company led by President Jacob Zuma's 28-year-old son, Duduzane, among others, giving them a lucrative stake in the South African arm of a steel giant, ArcelorMittal.

It was “the most nauseating business deal in recent memory,” a columnist, Mondli Makhanya, wrote recently in The Sunday Times of Johannesburg.

Normally, this kind of story would inspire rolled eyes and disgusted chuckles from readers. But the adversarial dealings of politicians and the press have taken a particularly nasty turn recently, as an infuriated governing party has sought to rein in newspapers it has come to see as determined opponents.

Business executives, civic leaders and journalists have responded with increasingly dire warnings that stringent measures being advanced by the governing African National Congress would threaten press freedom, enshroud much official activity in secrecy, potentially punish offending journalists or whistle-blowers with up to 25 years in prison and undermine the fight against corruption in the continent's largest economy.

Gordimer reaction

On Friday, the South African writers Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, Achmat Dangor, John Kani and Njabulo Ndebele added their voices to the protests. “This is the threat of a return to the censorship under apartheid,” said Gordimer, three of whose novels were banned in that era.

After spending billions of dollars to successfully host the World Cup — and revelling in how the month long global coverage burnished the country's reputation as a democratic beacon — the government is finding that it has created a major public relations problem.

Many at home and abroad are questioning the party's commitment to freedom of the press. On Thursday, the Cabinet tried to limit the damage, with a spokesman, Themba Maseko, suggesting that the government was open to considering changes in its proposals and calling for a cooling of tempers.

As now written, the ANC-led government's Protection of Information Bill would empower heads of government agencies to classify broad categories of information in the “national interest”. It would also mandate the imprisonment of those who disclose the material for three to 25 years. National interest is defined as “all matters relating to the advancement of the public good” and “the survival and security of the state”. The bill is moving through parliament, where the ANC has a nearly two-thirds majority.

The party has also stepped up its push for a tribunal, answerable to parliament, that would regulate the print media — oversight that Business Leadership South Africa, which represents companies that pay 80 per cent of the corporate taxes here, said “raises the prospect of a media answerable to political bosses.”

The official hostility to journalists is palpable. In a July 29 party document, the ANC described portions of the press as having an “anti-ANC stance”, and accused the print media of “an astonishing degree of dishonesty”.

The Cabinet acknowledged the risks this rancorous debate poses to the country's image, saying that it would meet with editors to discuss what it termed the erroneous perception that it was trying to muzzle the press.

Maseko, the government spokesman, stressed that the media tribunal was still just an issue before the party, not the government. And while the government had made no decision to withdraw the Protection of Information Bill, he said, it would consider arguments against it.

Even some in the journalistic fraternity acknowledge there are problems with the tone and precision of some reporting, but the party's harsh proposals have led to a circling of the wagons.

“Has there been a problem with accuracy?” asked Anton Harber, a former editor who heads the journalism department at the University of the Witwatersrand. “Absolutely. Has there been a reluctance to apologise timeously and appropriately? No doubt.” He said that editors were having behind-the-scenes conversations about how the press can strengthen standards, but added that it was hard to pursue these aggressively when the government has mounted a frontal attack on basic freedoms.

The African National Congress has been undeniably angered by revelations in the press. Some involve complex deals, but others damage the party's image as a champion of the poor, fuelling a sense that the rules are different for people with political power. There have been stories about ministers outfitted with Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, about the president's having a child with a woman to whom he was not married, about the communications minister's staying at the five-star Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town and sipping Hennessey cognac at taxpayer expense.

The last story provoked a heated statement from a party spokesman, Jackson Mthembu. He defended the hotel stays of senior officials as being in line with the ministerial handbook and called the Mail and Guardian article about them “sensationalism of the highest order”.

The clash between the press and the party of South Africa's liberation has helped fuel anxieties that the country — a regional powerhouse that plays a critical stabilising role in Africa — could be going the way of Zimbabwe, where those who fought for majority rule morphed into a kleptocratic elite that has used repression to hang onto power.

“They want to gag the media on corruption,” Moeletsi Mbeki, a businessman and political analyst whose brother, Thabo, was formerly president, said in an interview. His opinion is one that is increasingly commonplace here.

Party leaders, including Zuma, have reacted with outrage to suggestions that the ANC is trying to control the media or cover up corruption. “All right-thinking and properly informed people know that it is the ANC democratic government that has made it fashionable to fight corruption,” Zuma, who was dogged by corruption allegations for years, wrote recently in a party newsletter. He recently directed a respected investigative unit to investigate corruption in seven government agencies.

Reporter's arrest

But fears about the government's motives have flared since August 4, when a Sunday Times reporter, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, was arrested on fraud charges. Days earlier, he and another reporter had written a front-page article reporting that the national police chief, Bheki Cele, had approved what the paper called a suspicious property deal with a politically connected businessman without competitive bidding.

The newspaper and wa Afrika said he was seized by officers who had no warrant for his arrest, even though he was on his way to turn himself in, and he was not provided access to his lawyer for hours. The police searched his home, he said, taking his reporting notebooks. During questioning the following morning, the police asked him if he had been trying to discredit senior ANC officials, he said. His newspaper called his arrest in a case not related to the article “a blatant attempt to intimidate him and this newspaper.”

The Mail and Guardian also found wa Afrika's arrest “a powerful and terrifying message.”

“We're in the fight of our lives,” the paper said in an editorial. “It will be long, messy and short on moral clarity, but that won't stop us from fighting it with all we've got.” — © New York Times News Service

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