Press Freedom: Myth or Reality?

Wednesday, 6 May, 2009 - 12:25

On 3 May 2009, South African journalists joined the rest of the world in commemorating World Press Freedom Day. According to the UN, “it is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.” The UNESCO theme for this year is ‘Media, Dialogue and Mutual Understanding’.

In Southern Africa, where seven countries - Angola, DRC, Madagascar, Mozambique, SA, Malawi and Namibia - hold elections this year, the theme takes on great significance.

Speaking at an event to commemorate World Press Freedom Day in Mozambique, President Armando Guebuza, said that the partnership between government and the media is helping to advance press freedom in the country. The partnership can be seen as a step towards restoring media freedom in South Africa’s impoverished neighbouring country, where Carlos Alberto Cardoso, a widely respected journalist, was assassinated in November 2000. Despite this however, in a press statement issued by the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Mozambique on 15 April, the body denounced the intimidation of two radio journalists in the northern province of Niassa, one of whom was illegally detained by the police.

In 2008, Botswana came under spotlight as the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) criticised the Media Practitioners Bill, which makes it compulsory for journalists to register and get accreditation in order to carry out their work in that country. MISA Botswana chapter national director, Thapelo Ndlovu, dismissed government’s assurance that reporters have nothing to fear from the new law, as misleading. On 10 December 2008, the Botswana Parliament pressed ahead with passing of the controversial Bill. The bill, which faced fierce objections and an outcry from the media and the public in general, is now at the parliamentary committee stage before the final vote.

However, DItshwanelo – the Botswana Centre for Human Rights has called on the government to ensure that the committees proposed in the Media Practitioners Bill are impartial and independent of political influence. The organisation, which describes the Bill as inadequate, argues that such committees will guarantee the credibility of a media regulatory body similar to that obtaining in other professional bodies such as the Botswana Law Society.

In neighbouring Zimbabwe, the country’s Deputy Minister of Media, Information and Publicity, Jameson Timba, has said that no government has the moral authority or right to limit freedom of expression. Timba is of the view that the Zimbabwean government, guided by the Global Political Agreement, should open up the media and review the existing policies.

In South Africa the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression including freedom of the press and other media. However, if recent occurrences are anything to go by, then one could assume that press freedom is under threat. Lawsuits against newspapers and journalists, interdicts preventing the publication or broadcast of particular items appear to have become common place. Incidents like these have the potential to undermine editorial independence and I argue, can also lead to self-censorship.

For example, cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro is facing a lawsuit from South Africa's president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, who alleges that Shapiro's cartoons have unfairly depicted him as a rapist and a buffoon.

Elsewhere on the continent, journalists face harassment, threats of violence and physical retaliation. The following are some of examples:

  • The publisher and editor of satirical weekly in Niger has been charged for allegedly spreading false information over an article about the country’s president Mamadou Tandja this month.
  • Last year, the Egyptian security service arrested the editor of the blog Matabbat http://matabbat.blogspot.com, Mohamed Refaat. Refaat’s was accused of offending the state institutions, destabilising public security, and inciting others to demonstrate and strike via the Internet.
  • In October 2008, a US-based Nigerian news blogger, Jonathan Elendu, was held without charge by Nigeria’s secret service. His blog, Elendureports.com, is one of a number of diaspora-run "citizen reporting" websites about Nigeria and is known for publishing controversial stories.

As we commemorate the World Press Freedom Day every year, we should ask ourselves; does a truly free press exist anywhere in the world? We should not forget that many journalists, bloggers and reporters continue to pay the price for investigating and filing reports on issues that put their lives at risk, so that we, the public are kept informed.

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