Freedom of the press is newsworthy

THE South African media are robust and fiercely independent. Even at the height of apartheid repression, dedicated journalists toiled to bring to the world the ugly truth about the country.

THE South African media are robust and fiercely independent. Even at the height of apartheid repression, dedicated journalists toiled to bring to the world the ugly truth about the country.

It required a lot of bravery from reporters and editors and guts from publishers. They often used the ingenuity of lawyers to exploit loopholes in anti-media laws to expose the evil of institutionalised white racism.

Thus the world was moved by images and news of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960.

Sixteen years later, the media captured the explosion of black anger in Soweto on June 16. The iconic photo of the martyred Hector Pieterson pricked the conscience of the world. Apartheid was eventually declared a crime against humanity.

Such stories and images, including those of the death-detention of Steve Biko, led to sanctions being imposed on racist South Africa.

The racist government reacted with fury.

Many journalists and editors were either jailed or banned.

On a day of madness on October 19 1977, 18 Black Consciousness Movement organisations and the newspapers World, Weekend World and Pro Veritate, a Christian publication, were silenced.

We have come a long way in terms of press freedom since Black Wednesday 32 years ago. Journalists enjoy unprecedented freedom to practise their craft in the service of humanity.

Our media have taken full advantage of their new-found freedom, much to the chagrin of the less pious among the new rulers.

Though President Jacob Zuma has won praise for his public support of media freedom, it would be unwise of the Fourth Estate to let its guard down. It must maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and remain vigilant to the threats to press freedom and freedom of expression.

Our watchdog role does not endear us to powerful people. So it is not surprising that a plethora of laws inimical to media freedom remain in force 15 years after the demise of apartheid.

Even worse, it was an ANC government minister, Malusi Gigaba, deputy minister of home affairs, who led the biggest attack on press freedom in the new South Africa. He bizarrely tried to bring back the wholesale pre-publication censorship of newspapers, something even secretive apartheid governments had avoided doing.

He tried to do so surreptitiously, pretending to be protecting children from pornography.

President Zuma has signed a watered-down version of the Film and Publications Amendment Act into law, despite protests that it infringes on media freedom and is unconstitutional.

Now our political masters are toying with the idea of curtailing the media's ability to fulfil their historic duty of keeping the public informed through the innocuously named Protection of Personal Information Bill.

If it is passed the proposed law would make it impossible for the media to publish articles questioning the fitness for office of the president and judges, or to expose misconduct by public figures, according to a submission by Avusa.

It would also make it unlawful to publish an article or photograph of a pregnant celebrity, among other silly things.

Most disconcerting, though, are politicians' attempts to downplay the altruism of the media and overemphasise their nature as businesses that make profits. But no matter how much politicians and the beneficiaries of their largesse might feel about media companies profiting from the news business, there can be no denying that journalism serves the public good.

All journalists want is to be allowed to do their job of providing the public with the information it needs to make informed choices. That entails holding politicians, the government, business and other powerful people and institutions accountable.

That remains as true today as it was in 1977.

The only difference is that we now live in a democracy.