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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - South Africa

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - South Africa, February 1998, available at: [accessed 17 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Since President Nelson Mandela came to power in South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994, his government has surprised many of its critics by pursuing market-friendly policies. One of the casualties of this new free market and privatization was the giant South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which lost about one-third of its administrative, management, broadcasting, and technical staff as a result of downsizing, resignations, and retirements. The elimination of more than a thousand jobs resulted in the large-scale restructuring of the corporation. In a related matter, with the departure of former president F.W. de Klerk from National Party (NP) politics in August, the embattled NP in November accused SABC-Television News of politically biased reporting in giving over 90 percent of its coverage to the African National Congress (ANC) and not acting in the spirit of promoting multi-party democracy.

But while the SABC has reduced itself to a state of near collapse with a succession of misguided policy decisions, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) has been steadily reshaping the face of South African broadcasting since its inception three years ago. By creating more than 100 community radio stations in a country with low literacy rates and a high radio listenership, and selling off six SABC stations and licensing seven new commercial ones, the IBA has opened the airwaves to previously neglected sectors of society. In March, after the SABC got tough with license defaulters and proceeded with legal action against hundreds of people, the IBA began hearings for a new private commercial television station which would provide even more variety and is expected to go on the air by the middle of 1998 to compete with the three stations owned by SABC.

In August, the IBA began controversial inquiries into the existing license of M-Net, the only private pay-television station. Within the next 18 months, Posts, Telecommunications and Broadcasting Minister Jay Naidoo plans to merge IBA with the South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (SATRA), raising fears for IBA's independence, because the minister is able to intervene directly in the affairs of SATRA.

In mid-year, SATRA heard arguments concerning a battle for the Internet between Telkom, the state-owned phone company which enjoys a monopoly over telecommunications in South Africa, and the private Internet Service Providers Association. In an interim decision handed down on June 11, SATRA ruled that Telkom could not claim exclusive rights to Internet service provision.

The year was characterized by strained relations between the media and various levels of government. In a controversial statement at the beginning of the year, President Mandela described the press as "still controlled by white conservative proprietors" who are "embittered ... and out of touch with black society," and who co-opt black journalists to do their "dirty work." Tensions also rose at provincial and local levels of government, resulting in lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. These actions and threats were particularly worrisome for the future of small independent and community media, which often do not have the financial resources to pay legal fees.

Overall, the legal position of the press has changed significantly in recent years. Virtually all statutes aimed at the press – which in the past imposed a wide range of restrictions and provided for harsh measures of control by the government – have now been repealed or are under review. In February, after more than two years of drafting, the country's new constitution came into effect, and although it protects the right to freedom of expression and speech, it does not provide protection against certain forms of hate speech as some had hoped it would. In June, Minister of Safety and Security Sydney Mufamadi assured the press that authorities would not use the infamous Section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act against journalists until it is reviewed – an announcement met with relief because the section has been used in the past to compel journalists to reveal their sources.

President Mandela in July set up an advisory panel to choose the senior members of two new administrative bodies, the Films and Publications Board and the Review Board, which have the power to classify – or even ban – films and publications.

On a more positive note, the Open Democracy Bill was approved by the cabinet in June and made public in October. It is intended to protect citizens against invasion of privacy, either by the government or the private sector, and to protect government whistleblowers, as well as to allow citizens access to government information, and to force private information banks to disclose personal information they have gathered.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set May 30 as the deadline for submissions on the role the media played in South Africa from 1960 to the 1994 election, especially those journalists whose stories of abuse under apartheid had not yet been heard. In June, the Freedom of Expression Institute submitted research on the role of the media during the apartheid years and found that the mainstream newspaper industry had fallen short of its role to properly inform the public, and at times had engaged in collusion and self-censorship. In a stunning mea culpa in October, more than 100 journalists from Afrikaans publications presented written apologies to the TRC for the role played by their medium in promoting human rights abuses during apartheid.

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