South Africa turns up the media volume

14 October 2010

Since 1990, South Africa has been a noisy place. After decades of apartheid censorship, the lifting of restrictions on the media led to a cacophony of debate. For the first time in centuries, everyone in the country could be heard, and the result was sometimes deafening.

South Africa in the Washington Post First there were effectively no media laws at all, then the country’s new Constitution, adopted in 1996, explicitly protected freedom of speech and media, excluding only propaganda for war, incitement to violence and hate speech.

The news in the new South Africa

The new African National Congress (ANC) government had a positive policy to transform the media and rid it of its apartheid inheritance, encourage diversity and give a media voice to previously excluded communities.

South African newspapers went through a difficult time of consolidation, with some going out of business, but then there was a boom in tabloids, making this one of the few countries where newspaper sales went up in the early 21st century. Papers like the Daily Sun created a huge new set of newspaper readers, and gave voice to the working class, a voice which had been absent from mainstream media.

Investigative journalism flourished, with exposes of every controversial aspect of South African life: bad governance, wasteful spending, white collar crime and social conditions.

If the test of an effective watchdog media is that crooks and scoundrels sleep restlessly, then South African newspapers passed with flying colours. No one was spared: not even the national chief of police and the President’s personal financial adviser, both of whom were sentenced to prison after being exposed in the media.

Freedom versus dignity

But media is a contested political area. Democracy not only means freedom of the media, but freedom to criticise, denounce and take issue with the media.

Tough news coverage has brought accusations of unfairness, lack of balance and ethics, and invasions of personal dignity and privacy. In a society with a long history of racial inequality, issues of dignity are particularly sensitive.

These are not unique to South Africa, but they come against the background of a tense transition to democracy, a media often tainted by apartheid history, the fragility of a new social compact and a young government operating under difficult circumstances.

This has led to intense debate in South Africa about whether the media exercises enough responsibility along with its rights: in particular, how to balance freedom of speech against the right to dignity. A new secrecy Bill – intended to bring old apartheid law in line with the new constitution – is hotly contested amid accusations that it seeks to cast the net of secrecy too widely. The Bill is currently being debated in Parliament.

The right to make noise

The ruling ANC has expressed its unhappiness with the newspapers’ system of self-regulation – an ombudsman and a press council – and proposes a statutory appeals tribunal, as recourse for those aggrieved by their treatment at the hands of journalists. They argue that editors have been too reluctant to apologise and correct when they get things wrong.

The tribunal suggestion has increased the volume more than ever, with a host of civil society organisations, legal bodies, political parties, academics and institutions speaking out against it.

That this proposal can be so hotly debated is itself a sign of a vigorous, open and healthily contested democracy. Clearly, South Africans are not going to give up any freedoms lightly. There is going to be a lot of noise around the right to make noise.

Professor Anton Harber is the director of the journalism programme at the University of the Wiwatersrand. He is a former joint founder and editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

This article was first published in South Africa Now, a six-page supplement to the Washington Post produced on behalf of Brand South Africa. Download South Africa Now (PDF, 2.12 MB).