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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


RABE, Lizette. The importance of media freedom in South Africa: Two centuries, two case studies, from the Magna Carta to the Secrecy Bill. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2016, vol.56, n.3, pp.856-874. ISSN 2224-7912.

This article discusses the current threats to a free media in South Africa from a media historiographical point of view and argues that the role of a free media in South Africa is more important than ever. Media freedom as a concept is discussed, and a free media sector is discussed from a libertarian as well as the social responsibility theoretical point of departure. Although these two models can be regarded as almost prehistoric amidst a plethora of current, more abstract, media theories, these models encapsulate the role of the media within a functioning democracy. This is followed by a brief discussion of the case study as research design and the historical method as research tool, also referring to the fact that the historical method supports the view of the cyclical nature of history since antiquity; this entails that events occur in a cycle and that only names and dates may differ, but what has happened before will occur again. The importance of media freedom as "guardian and guide of all other liberties" is discussed, concluding that no single definition of media freedom can exist, as it is interpreted according to various relevant contexts. As such, no absolute freedom exists either, as it is always relative to and measured against other liberties and rights, as also illustrated by media freedom as enshrined in Article 16 in the South African Constitution's Bill of Rights. This discussion is followed by two case studies in the struggle for media freedom against the government of the day over a time span of almost two hundred years in South Africa. The first is under authoritarian British colonial rule, and the second under a democratic dispensation under the ANC. In the first, at the beginning of the 1800s, the situation developed from no freedom of the press to so-called unconditional freedom. The press pioneers Fairbairn, Pringle and Greig secured press freedom for the time by standing up against a colonial governor who has been described as a despot and as authoritarian. They succeeded in obtaining freedom of the press in what was known as the Magna Carta of press freedom, namely Ordinance 60 of the Cape of Good Hope in 1829. It was regarded as a new era for the free press in South Africa, where it would be impossible to interfere with the press ever again. As context, examples of interference by the government of the day are discussed briefly to lead to the second case study, which is set in post-1994 South Africa. Despite constitutional guarantees, the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), the Protection of State Information Bill (commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill), the amendments to the Films and Publication Board (FPB) and the February 2015 jamming of cell phone signals in parliament, as well as undemocratic statements and actions by South Africa's head of state and his Government, suggest serious dangers to media freedom. Experts are united on the issue that these aspects contain serious threats to media freedom. Within a democratic dispensation and because of the media's function within the libertarian/social responsibility model, the system of self-regulation therefore is relevant and is discussed briefly. Such a self-regulation system - in this case, the South African Press Council, the Press Code and the Press Ombud system - is seen as vital for the functioning of an independent media sector. Despite this on-going review of self-regulation, the threats of the MAT, the Secrecy Bill, seemingly ad hoc decisions by the State's security cluster, and the FPB and its amendments, as well as statements made by the South African president and his government, indicate that media freedom, despite its constitutional entrenchment, is not guaranteed. The article concludes that media freedom is always conditional, despite a pro tempore experience that it can be unconditional. Indeed, media freedom is as much an issue in a so-called liberal democratic dispensation as it was in a previous dictatorial colonial era.

Palavras-chave : Case study; colonialism; democracy; libertarian [social]; responsibility role of the media; media freedom; media history; press freedom; self regulation.

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