The South African National Editors’ Forum today commemorates Black Wednesday, that historic day on 19 October 1977, when the apartheid government banned newspapers The World, Weekend World, Pro Veritate and 17 Black Consciousness organisations.
We recognize as we commemorate that fateful day, where the apartheid regime extended its repression to the media, arresting brave journalists, that South Africa is a completely different country, with a thriving democracy. The constitution of the new South Africa has freedom of the press and other media as part of its corner stones.
We are concerned however that there are many threats to the freedom of the media, which in its proper constitutional context, includes the freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
The Protection of State Information Bill, also known as the Secrecy Bill, and campaigns to install a draconian Media Appeals Tribunal are some of the most undesirable moves by the democratic government and the ruling party, the AN respectively.
The “Secrecy Bill’’ has been under consideration since Parliament sent it to President Jacob Zuma in 2013, after he initially returned to the national legislature for what he said were “technical reasons”.
Given the large body of legal opinion that the Secrecy Bill remains unconstitutional, Sanef has constantly called on the president to send the bill to the Constitutional Court for a decision, considering that large body of evidence pointing to its blatant flaws.
In terms of Section 79 (4) of the Constitution, once Parliament reconsiders and passes a bill sent back to it by the president, the president must either assent to the bill or refer it to the Constitutional Court for a decision on its constitutionality.
On the Media Appeals Tribunal, Sanef has consistently asserted that the current system of independent co-regulation for print and digital media, introduced after the ANC’s 2012 national conference resolution calling for the MAT inquiry by Parliament, is an adequate mechanism. The Tribunal is therefore unnecessary.
This year’s commemoration of Black Wednesday comes as there is a concerning, and growing trend of attacks on journalists while covering public protests.
Dozens of journalists were attacked during the “FeesMustFall’’ campaign in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Grahamstown. Police and private security officials hired by the universities allegedly attacked journalists and students, in some instances deleting their footage. Journalists have been arrested by police in KZN and Grahamstown.
This is consistent with the disturbing events of police heavy-handedness that journalists faced during the local government election campaign trail. The events surrounding the elections coverage were brought to the attention of the leadership of the South African Police Service.
Only on Monday, (October 18), about 10 professional and student journalists were victims of a hostile police attitude when they were teargassed while covering events at Rhodes University.
We are also concerned about incidents of corporate encroachment in editorial operations, leading to the resignation of a number of editors in the past couple of years.
Meanwhile, Sanef will next week celebrate 20 years of its existence, with a dinner to reflect on the challenges and victories of the past two decades and to recommit ourselves to working towards an even better brand of journalism in the service of South Africa.
African Union Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will address the dinner at Emoyeni Conference Centre in Parktown, Johannesburg on October 26.
Sanef Chairwoman Mahlatse Gallens said: ‘‘We have come a long way in fighting for equality in the media but given our history of racial and gender discrimination – we have to soldier on to ensure diversity in our newsrooms.’’
She said while we have left the dark days of Black Wednesday in the past, “we continue to face challenges to protect the safe spaces needed for journalism to thrive’‘.
Sanef Media Freedom Sub-Committee Chairperson
Sanef Executive Director
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