JOHANNESBURG – JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The U.S. ambassador called for South Africa's government and journalists to work together Wednesday amid growing tensions over a proposed law that could jail reporters for publishing information that officials want kept secret.
South Africa's governing African National Congress party also wants to create a tribunal that could discipline journalists, with powers to punish that have not yet been spelled out.
"America still believes that a free press serves as the front line in the defense of democracy," U.S. Ambassador Donald Gipps said in a speech at a foreign affairs think tank in Johannesburg that also touched on the economy and the fight against AIDS.
Gipps called on the South African government and media to work together to strike a balance between national security and freedom of information.
"The overturning of apartheid offered South Africa opportunities to come together to create a constitution that is a model both in terms of citizen responsibility and for its protection of the freedoms so many fought to achieve and enshrine in law," he said. "South Africa must not turn away from that history now."
Activists fear the recent moves in South Africa — known for one of the continent's freest and most open constitutions — could influence other countries in the region.
Mandeep Tiwana of the international civil rights coalition Civicus said that while South Africa can boast 16 stable years since the first all-race elections ended white rule, he worries about what could come next if the media is targeted.
"This is a first sign of a downward slide," said Tiwana, a legal specialist in Civicus's Johannesburg office.
Journalists have accused the ANC of using apartheid-era tactics to stifle dissent and criticism, and the ANC has hit back.
"The media is a business enterprise," President Jacob Zuma said in a public letter to party members. "The primary issue is to make a profit. Press freedom and the like are noble principles, but we all know that what drives the media is money, like all businesses."
Outsiders who watched the display of unity and national purpose that allowed South Africa to pull off a World Cup in June and July — the first time the event was staged in Africa — might wonder how things could deteriorate so quickly. But the tensions aren't new.
ANC leaders taking office after the country's first all-race elections in 1994 found themselves being treated as politicians, not civil rights activists, by reporters they had embraced as allies. Some complained a press that had at times accepted muzzling by the white government was suddenly holding a democratic government to high standards.
It's not just journalists who are raising concerns about the government proposals. Even Eskom, the state-owned electricity utility, expressed reservations, saying restrictions on sharing commercial information envisioned in the bill could complicate negotiations with foreign investors.
In a statement Wednesday, grocery chain chairman Gareth Ackerman, among South Africa's best known entrepreneurs, said business should be concerned about the law and the proposed media tribunal.
"Foreign investors require the assurance that we are serious about combating corruption and waste, that government affairs are transparent and accountable, and that information is readily available and reliable," Ackerman said. "Any erosion of our open society, now that we have achieved it, will only impede economic growth and national prosperity."
COSATU, the powerful trade union federation that is a key ANC supporter, has even questioned the need for the bill, saying it could hamper campaigns to expose corruption.
An initial version of the bill, drafted to replace apartheid-era legislation, was withdrawn in 2008 following similar protests. No date for a vote on the 2010 version has been set.
In a further sign of possible dissent within the party, Tokyo Sexwale, an influential ANC member, has said the media tribunal proposal is merely being debated and is not necessarily party policy.
It's not just a matter of concern for South Africans, said Lloyd Kuveya, media specialist for the Johannesburg-based Southern Africa Litigation Centre. He said officials in neighboring countries are already pointing to moves in South Africa to justify their own policies restricting freedom of speech and the media.
In its annual international survey of conditions in which the media operate, the Washington-based Freedom House said South Africa dropped from free to partly free last year. It was the first year since 1990 that no southern African countries were deemed free.
"South Africa is not leading by example," Kuveya said. "They are setting a bad precedent."