But constitution protects journalists that report fearlessly

Eric Naki

Eric Naki

"Other freedoms are eroded if there is no press freedom."

This is how Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University, summed up the effect of the possible arrests of Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and his deputy managing editor, Jocelyn Maker.

This pending and unprecedented action against the two has shaken the country and challenged our young democracy. Doubtlessly, should the arrests be effected at all, our democratic gains will be reversed by several steps. This is so because press freedom epitomises all other freedoms.

While the NPA dilly dallies about charging Makhanya and Maker and the arrests are not carried out, a dark cloud hangs over the country. The two face arrest for being in possession of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's health records.

The Sunday Times recently published stories about the minister's alleged alcohol binge and unbecoming behaviour at Cape Town's Medi-Clinic two years ago.

Prior to the Johannesburg high court decision, questions were raised about whether public interest was any justification for the newspaper to publish the minister's health records.

But the court silenced the argument when it ruled that the records were in the public interest because a state official was involved.

The action against Makhanya and Maker, especially the alleged bugging of their phones, raised alarm among media freedom groups who said that it smacked of apartheid-era tactics.

Gavin Stewart, media freedom guru and former Daily Dispatch editor, this issue has been long in coming and has happened before in the free world.

Stewart says all revolutions slip back into what they fought against and press freedom is always the first casualty. He cites the Russian Revolution. After campaigning against oppressive laws and press restrictions, Vladimir Lenin used the same oppressive anti-press freedom measures.

Stewart says: "Every revolution starts with a great period of openness. But things change and the revolutionaries go back to the ways of their predecessors and apply tight press laws as did Lenin and his cronies."

During the era of the French monarchy, the higher the position, the more protection people enjoyed against public and media scrutiny. The revolution reversed this, but the new order reverted to the old order later.

Stewart says South Africa under President Thabo Mbeki could be slowly sliding into a similar quagmire because of the insecurity of the ruling elite.

"Mbeki is feeling less and less secure as he is trying desperately to make things work. There's also the talk about the possible change of guard," says Stewart.

The irony, says Stewart, is that black editors are leading the new challenge against the ANC government.

"In the past, only a handful of white liberal editors such as Donald Woods, Raymond Louw, Laurence Gandar, Tony Heard, Allister Sparks, Harvey Tyson and Rex Gibson dared to stand up to the Nats."

Joe Latakgomo, former editor of Sowetan, successor to the World and Weekend World that the Nats banned, concurs with the view of revolutionaries reverting to repression.

Latakgomo says Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, a Marxist revolutionary and an erstwhile guerilla hero, relied on his predecessor Ian Smith's laws to deal harshly with his opponents and the independent press.

"We have a very interesting comparison in our new democracy. It is quite interesting to see how things we fought against during apartheid have come back now," says Latakgomo.

He says the only difference between the present and the past is that press restrictions are not legislated.

"The NP government willy- nilly used all sorts of laws to get at the media. It would be tragic if we go back to that environment," Latakgomo says.

He warns about a "fear factor" among journalists resulting from "insidious" and "covert" threats emanating from government officials towards the media.

"Journalists are scared to tackle issues now because they fear being labelled unpatriotic in the case of black and racist in the case of white journalists," says Latakgomo.

City Press editor Khathu Mamaila believes there is no need to panic because the law protects journalists.

Mamaila says it is significant that the ANC government fought for a free press and ensured that it was enshrined in the constitution.

"There is bound to be tension between government and media. There is no need to panic. That tension will remain," he says.

Mamaila says that journalists must be responsible. He says sometimes the media responds to the needs of advertisers at the expense of free information flow and other societal issues.

"Journalists need to be careful. If we criticise people, we must accept to be criticised too," says Mamaila.

The best medicine, he says, is to improve the quality of journalism. The media must be seen to be able to handle the freedom it has and not give the government an excuse to regulate it.

Media experts believe that our constitution is a noble document and has to be respected by everybody, including the media.

Stewart says the Soviet constitution guaranteed the freedom of the press, assembly and movement, but the citizens were not free.

Latakgomo says: "I don't think that journalists must be critical for the sake of being critical. I don't think the media should demand greater rights than those of other citizens."

Harber says press freedom has to be balanced against other freedoms.

"The constitution protects us all. With this guarantee of freedom, journalists must continue to report independently and fearlessly."