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State of media freedom in South Africa of great concern

FXI demonstration on Press Freedom Day

3 May 2006 

As the world marks World Press Freedom day today, the FXI is seriously concerned about the state of media freedom in South Africa and the rest of Africa. Living in a post-1994 South Africa, most people expect that media freedom should not be an issue that is questioned. However, a number of developments over the past year give us cause for unease regarding the path that South African society is treading in terms of protecting its hard-won freedoms.

An extremely worrying endeavour to undermine media freedom and independence in South Africa is the attempt by the Department of Communications and Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi to compromise and subvert the independence of Icasa, the regulator of electronic communications. The Department has tried, in various ways, to subject Icasa to the Minister, most recently through the Icasa Amendment Bill which sought to have Icasa commissioners appointed by the Minister rather than by parliament, which is currently the case. Fortunately, President Thabo Mbeki refused to sign the bill and it has been referred back to parliament. The Department is willing to go as far as to amend the Constitution in order to make the regulator subservient to it.

We have also, in the past year, seen an increase in the incidences of judicial censorship. This was seen most recently, for example, in the case of the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad where the High Court granted an interim interdict preventing a range of publications from reproducing the cartoons. Another way in which media has increasingly been silenced over the past year is through the use of defamation suits.

Media has also been under fire as it attempts to maintain protection over its sources. The case of the Mail & Guardian and Imvume is instructive in this regard. The attempt was to force the M&G to reveal the sources of its information and to use the courts to do so.

The situation in some parts of the rest of Africa is much worse. Eritrea is regarded as the world’s worst jailer of journalists, with at least 13 journalists in prison currently. The situation is only marginally better for journalists in the DRC, Gambia and Zimbabwe. Even outside of Africa, there is not much to celebrate on World Press Freedom Day. The media certainly is not free, for example, in the United States, supposedly the centre of ‘the free world’ where news production is carefully managed by US government and powerful business interests and where the fear of having a voice of dissent is becoming suffocating for many people.

These are serious concerns for all those who are keen to see the development of a society based on the kinds of rights and freedoms that are enshrined in the South African Constitution.

But, on World Press Freedom Day, the FXI wants to also place on record another form of the constraining of basic freedoms: the freedom to protest. While the Constitution guarantees South Africans the right to march, protest and demonstrate, and the Regulation of Gatherings Act provides for the regulation of such activities in a manner that will facilitate them, local authorities across the country have distorted the meaning of the Constitution and the Act in such a manner that any group wanting to protest or march is entirely beholden to local authorities, Metro Police Departments and the South African Police Services. These authorities take it upon themselves to decide whether they like a particular organisation, agree with its views, think it is responsible, etc – all factors which are contrary to the spirit and letter of the Act – before they decide whether to approve any gathering.

The FXI is calling for a meeting with the Minister of Provincial and Local Government, Sydney Mufamadi, and the Minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula, to discuss this subversion of the Constitution and to impose on local authorities and the police to apply the Act as it should be.

For many communities and organisations of the poor, the only freedom of expression available to them is that of taking to the streets in protests, marches and other demonstrations of dissent or discontent. The manner in which the RGA has been applied deprives the most disadvantaged sectors of our society from the only form of expression they can exercise.

The FXI will be holding a protest today to call on the two ministers and on local authorities to abide by the Constitution and the RGA. The protest will be:

Department of Local Government

Wednesday, 3rd May

12:00 to 14:00

Issued by the Freedom of Expression Institute

For more information, call:

Simon: 083 397 0057

Virginia: 083 557 1339

Jane: 082 786 3600

Na’eem: 084 574 2674