|When Nelson Mandela retires as president after national elections that will take place sometime between May and July 1999, South Africa's democratic order will be firmly in place. Yet Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's anticipated successor, will inherit a raft of problems: political violence in the countryside, rampant crime in urban centers, and government corruption. The independent media, which have made significant press freedom gains in South Africa's strongly independent courts, look to assist the nation in tackling these pressing issues, while vigorously scrutinizing an often highly sensitive government.
On September 29, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in
National Media v. Bogoshi that journalists are not liable
in defamation suits, even if offending reports turn out to be untrue,
as long as media professionals can show that they were reasonable
or careful in their work. The groundbreaking decision reversed a
lower court judgment against National Media, the owner of the weekly
newspaper City Press. Presiding Judge Joos Hefer wrote,
"If we recognize, as we must, the democratic imperative that the
common good is best served by the free flow of information and task
of the media in the process, it must be clear that strict liability
cannot be defended."
In November, the independent, though government-funded, Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced it would cancel an investigation into suspected racism at two leading newspapers Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times. But the commission said it would pursue a broader examination of racial prejudice throughout the media.
On August 18, an inquest court subpoenaed several editors of leading news organizations, demanding photographs, video footage, or transcripts pertaining to public demonstrations related to the vigilante killing of a gang leader. Reuters, one of the subpoenaed news organizations, said that it would not break its policy of protecting confidential sources and refusing to divulge information obtained by journalists. In a separate case, reports on gang activities by the Hangklip Herald, Hermanus Herald, and Gansbaai Herald contributed to the arrest of Rooi Darkies gang members, but on May 11, the offices of those newspapers were set ablaze in an apparent reprisal.
In a number of instances this year, the government reversed itself on harsh actions against journalists. Authorities relented in their plan to deport Zimbabwe-born Newton Kanhema, an investigative reporter with The Sunday Independent, and a recipient of a Cable News Network (CNN) African Journalist of the Year award, who had angered Deputy President Mbeki by exposing a US$1.5 billion arms deal between South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Officials also apologized for the June 27 beating of Thabo Mabaso, a reporter for the independent newspaper Cape Argus, who has lost sight in his left eye as a result of the attack, and suspended the police officers accused of assaulting Mabaso.
This year, the country's first private television station, E.TV -- a joint venture of local companies and the U.S.-based Time Warner Corporation -- was launched, only to face a possible shutdown by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) for violations of its broadcast license. The IBA grants licenses based upon the broadcasters' production of local programming.
A more subtle but significant press freedom issue involves media ownership by conglomerates whose business interests may impede critical reporting. Observers are closely watching local media outlets that have received substantial foreign investment or have been bought outright by foreign investors, to ascertain whether editorial coverage is being influenced by the interests of their new partners.