The measure definitely seems a frightening move toward authoritarianism. The African National Congress (ANC) almost completely dominates the political scene on the strength of having led the long struggle against apartheid. Politics in South Africa take place as much within the ANC's factions as outside it or in opposition to the party. It could probably brush aside pesky complaining voices while retaining much popular support. That way leads to terrible governance as people in the United States discovered during the period of emotional national unity after 9/11 when President George W was riding high and leading the country off a cliff.
Alerted by Jackson's column, I decided to read a few South African sources on the press law. Not surprisingly, journalists are protesting.
Savvy writers also point out that media censorship ain't what it used to be in the bad old days before widespread connectivity.
But other South African writers are less quick to reassure themselves -- or to make a blanket condemnation of the government. Stephen Grootes in The Daily Maverick took a stab at understanding ANC spokesperson Baleka Mbete's arguments for the "Protection of Information Bill" in a local forum.
Because I worked briefly in the press in South Africa (in 1990, as apartheid was ending but before majority rule) I bring some small amount of nuance to thinking about this situation.
South Africa inherited some proud traditions from "Western-style media", but it also got a heavy dose of the dregs. The now-defunct tabloid where I worked was a "struggle" (multi-racial, anti-apartheid) publication, but it was also trying to survive (barely) in a capitalist market. It had to sell eyeballs to advertisers in competition with purely commercial papers. The local standard looked a lot like Rupert Murdoch's vicious and sleazy New York Post. So our outfit went along with the local standard, publishing prurient, stupid and even dubiously accurate stories to attract notice in the crowd. I particularly remember the time the front page led with a picture and story about an unfortunate young West African who had stowed away on a freighter and jumped ship in Cape Town, all because unable to find a way to live as person of indeterminate gender. The style is unfortunately familiar from supermarket check out lines.
A quick perusal of online images suggests that little has changed. Here's a contemporary South African tabloid:
The sensational style is pervasive in the South African press. It's not surprising that those elements of the ANC who want to rein in the freedom to criticize government figures can arouse popular revulsion against the media's failings and excesses.
People in the United States should not be smugly confident that a turn against press freedom on the basis of sheer disgust could not happen here. In addition to contemporary Murdoch/Fox News/supermarket tabloid entries, our history is full of corrupt sensational journalism from Thomas Jefferson's purchase of a writer to do hits on his political opponent John Adams through William Randolph Heart's ginning up a U.S. war to conquer the fading Spanish empire.
That stuff sells and always will. To be defensible, journalism has to prove its worth to democracy -- to most people -- in every generation. South Africa is a grand experiment in transition from one of the worst systems of oppression ever invented to a difficult democracy that has to hold the allegiance of people from many cultures and standards of living. I marvel at its difficulties and wish it well.