Is South Africa going backwards when it comes to freedom of the press ?

Its is commonly known that the powerful ruling political party, the African National Congress governs without much confrontation. Yes its ruling and governing style has been under criticism by former members who were either kicked out or purged.  Although the ANC faced opposition parties, none had the one thing that counted in politics, money.

This brings us to the current proposed legislation to reel in print media, including a tribunal overseen by Parliament, which his party controls. President Zuma, who leads the ANC, voiced his support for this.

Bobby Godsell, chairman of Business Leadership South Africa

South Africa’s business community, which rarely confronts the powerful ru ling political party, took aim at the African National Congress-controlled government and proposals to clamp down on the print media, saying such efforts threatened to tarnish the country’s image and undermine a wave of investor interest after hosting the World Cup.”We just dispelled so many stupid ideas about our country,” said Bobby Godsell, chairman of Business Leadership South Africa, a group made up of chief executives of the nation’s 80 largest companies. “Now we’ve got people raising questions about whether our government believes in press freedom,” he told reporters at a media briefing on Tuesday.

Business Leadership South Africa called press freedom “the lifeblood of both markets and democracies.” And while the group said the quality of the country’s journalism needed to improve, it criticized a proposed parliamentary watchdog for the media and a separate bill that casts a wide net over what information is classified.

The comments from the business group follow a statement Friday from President Jacob Zuma, who also leads the ANC. President Zuma expressed support for steps to reel in print media, including a tribunal overseen by Parliament, which his party controls.

“The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian,” he said. “We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian?”

For weeks, the media-freedom debate has filled South Africa’s newspapers and airwaves.

Proponents of a tribunal say print media has veered into sensationalist and sometimes defamatory coverage—with little or no corrective punishment from an existing press ombudsman for inaccurate stories. Critics say that, in trying to muzzle the press, the ANC is hoping to conceal government corruption and failures to deliver reliable electricity, drinkable water and paved roads to the poor.

Newspapers have also dived into the personal life of South Africa’s polygamous president. Mr. Zuma acknowledged this year he fathered a 20th child with a woman who wasn’t one of his three wives. The disclosure followed intensive press coverage.

In Friday’s statement, Mr. Zuma said the media should allow the ANC and the public the same constitutional right to express views in favor of a press tribunal.

“We will use our right to express what we think. And we should not be silenced by claims of ‘threats to press freedom,’ ” Mr. Zuma said. “Let the real debate begin.”

In wading into the debate, the typically cautious South African business community is taking a bold step—and one that may not be without risk.

In South Africa, the ANC-dominated government hovers over almost all areas of the economy. It supports big state-owned companies, awards lucrative infrastructure contracts and keeps scorecards on how well companies comply with “black empowerment” policies.

But the desire to “say something” trumped any worries about government repercussions for speaking out, said Michael Spicer, chief executive of Business Leadership South Africa. “Some may have felt we waited too long,” he said.

Business executives are concerned the proposed media controls may cause collateral damage. South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, is positioning itself as a gateway to a market of a billion people and a choice investment destination.

Central to that ambition is image. The successful hosting of the World Cup allowed companies and business to burnish the country’s credentials as a functioning free-market democracy, and allay fears among overseas investors of corruption, violent crime and political stability. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that South Africa’s economy this year would grow 3.3%, partly boosted by investment and spending around the World Cup, and is set to expand 5% in 2011.

But in some recent meetings with investors, members of Business Leadership South Africa had to respond to renewed concerns about the country, said Mr. Spicer. Along with questions about the government’s stance on the media, he added, investors have also expressed fresh concerns about corruption, particularly with regard to the awarding of mining rights.

This bill is not good and won’t do any favors for South African democracy in the short, medium, and long run. It will only confirm what many people suspect of the ANC and current leadership. In a free and democratic society, the independence of media organizations and institutions are not to be lap dogs of people in power and current governing class.

The media has one job, to hold those elected accountable. The Financial Times editorial said it well:

There is nothing that upsets South Africa’s leaders more than the suggestion that their country could become another Zimbabwe. But government-backed proposals for a new law aimed at muzzling the South African press positively invite the comparison. If the Protection of Information Bill, now before parliament, becomes law, South Africa will have crossed a dangerous threshold towards a corrupt, dysfunctional and impoverished autocracy.

It is true that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) gained a large majority in democratic elections. But democracy is about more than voting. It also requires a free press and an independent judiciary; particularly in a country such as South Africa, where a single party is deeply entrenched in power. The South African judiciary is still independent, but some recent senior appointments have smacked of cronyism.

The newspapers, however, have done a good job recently in exposing corruption and highlighting questionable interventions by the government. These include the diversion of mineral and prospecting rights into the hands of people with connections to the ANC, including family members and friends of President Jacob Zuma.

Big foreign investors such as ArcelorMittal and Lonmin have been subject to decisions that seemed designed to drive them out of lucrative lines of business, or to force them to pay off well-connected locals. The ultimate losers in deals such as these are poor South Africans, who pay a price in lost investment and lost jobs.

The proposed new press law comes amid increased harassment of local journalists, and alongside a proposal for a new official media tribunal. The law seems a perfect tool to stop exposure of corruption. It would give ministers wide powers to classify information as secret, and cover not only matters affecting state security, but also commercial information that “if released publicly would cause financial loss or competitive or reputational injury” to affected parties. Somebody convicted would face up to 25 years in prison.

The Protection of Information Bill could be made less damaging if it were amended to allow defendants to argue that they were publishing “secrets” in the public interest – at present there is no such provision. The definition of a secret could also be more tightly focused on national security.

But these are mere palliatives. The South African government should withdraw this appalling law in its entirety.

Amen to that.

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