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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What It Really Means to Compare Media Regimes in Africa

Mail & Guardian -- South Africans are proud of our democratic Constitution and its media freedom provisions. And so we should be, given our exemplary rights to free speech and our diverse media, and their contrast to neighbouring countries Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

It's not that we're just "lucky" to lead the continent in this respect: our relative paradise was hard fought for. But before we get too complacent, it's notable that we also lag behind some other African countries in several media-law aspects.

It's a mixed bag when you compare us more broadly.

Senegal, for example, has a law that gives journalists the right to refuse any instruction that contradicts the ethics of their practice. In addition, Senegalese journalists can't be forced to express an opinion contrary to their convictions. The same law says that journalists cannot accept direct or indirect instructions from advertisers. There's nothing similar in this country.

And while we South Africans celebrate our Media Development and Diversity Agency, which gives support to small-scale media, Senegal has an extensively elaborated legal framework to give grants to any size print and broadcast.

This is not to say, however, that all is rosy around media in this West African country. Its media support system does not quite entail an "independent national body" or a "body freely instituted by the journalists themselves", as proposed by the Economic Community of West African States.

Back to the comparisons: South Africa lags behind another West African state, Mali, which has constitutional guarantees of equal access by all citizens to state-owned media. On the downside, however, that country requires a journalism qualification if you want to work in media. To be an editor, you also must be over 21 and have three years' journalistic experience. (That's one way -- a bad one -- of dealing with "juniorisation" in the newsrooms.)

Mali's good points are in contrast to this country's definition of defamation as a criminal, rather than a civil, offence -- and by extending the "crime" to any badmouthing of the army, head of state, MPs, civil servants, and foreign governments or diplomats.

Zambia has the same kind of "insult laws", dating back to the British penal code -- and accordingly even outlawing criticism of "foreign princes" (sic). In contrast, and standing out from most other countries on the continent, Ghana scrapped similar controls five years ago.

On this score, South Africa is a winner -- even under apartheid, we did not have such laws.

But we're behind Mozambique, which is the only country on the continent that provides protection, in its Constitution, to journalists defending the confidentiality of their sources. That's way ahead of South Africa.

Turning to broadcast regulation, on the whole we've had positives from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa). But it's not necessarily a case of best practice on the continent. Take, for instance, the issue of a ministerial role in choosing the councillors -- a debate considered by Parliament last year. We can learn a thing or two from the Ghanaians on this issue.

In this West African country, a purely technical committee appointed by the government tends to licences. Real power, however, lies with a constitutional body called the National Media Commission (NMC), which among other things appoints the heads of state-owned media. The interesting thing is that two-thirds of NMC members are elected from the media, advertising industry, teaching profession and religious organisations. That is much more directly democratic than South Africa where our minister (and Parliament, in the case of the South African Broadcasting Corporation) has primary appointment powers.

In our favour, we often remark about South Africa having good policy but poor implementation; yet, even if so, we're much better off than Zambia. There, it took years of lobbying to get laws passed in 2002 to set up an independent licensing body and convert the government broadcaster into a public-service institution.

Three years later, the Zambian executive was still refusing to accept the supremacy of Parliament to appoint the boards of the regulator and the national broadcaster. Two court cases on, and a judgement last month, may finally compel Lusaka to implement the laws.

South Africa is also much better off than Tanzania, which stands near the back of the line in terms of progressive African media laws. The Tanzanian government alone decides who can publish, and the authorities can (and do) withdraw registration if they deem a newspaper to be "prejudicial to, or incompatible with, the maintenance of peace, order and good government".

Worse still is Ethiopia, where a licence is required for all publishing and where several opposition-supporting newspapers have been banned in the past year. Talk about draconian: its press law includes penalties for forgetting to publish the name of the editor and proprietor or a news-agency source. And woe betides Ethiopian publishers who fail to submit a copy to the government within 24 hours of publication.

A draft law in Addis Ababa also aims to criminalise failure to publish a reader's reply or correction -- notwithstanding a contradictory provision that an editor is entitled to refuse to publish anything against his or her will.

More acceptably on this topic, Ghana has enshrined a constitutional right of citizens to reply to the media, with eight nuanced directives that flesh out what this means.

By contrast, South African audiences have much weaker rights.

We do come out tops for our Promotion of Access to Information Act -- even though this law really still has to take transparency here to new heights. Most other African countries don't have any freedom-of-information law at all, although there are some slow moves in this direction.

In sum, South Africa is certainly better off in media-law terms than some other African countries, but we do get pipped for the honours in some areas. The lesson is always to compare both up and down when it comes to assessing how our system compares around the continent.

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