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Clamp-down on Free Press... From Winners of Freedom!

Journalists, even while generally exhibiting cynicism and world-weariness, can also be extremely sensitive. When they feel betrayed, they feel it extra-powerfully.

South Africa's media are among the most vibrant and adventurous in the world -- and if not out-and-out cynical all the time, they can without question be deeply skeptical in a professionally appropriate way. Currently, though, journalists in this still-young democracy, the so-called Rainbow Nation, appear to be living in a state of shock and outrage.

The government of President Jacob Zuma plans to curtail journalistic freedom with a crude new tool. It's a Protection of State Information Bill, now making its way toward enactment. When in force the law will make it a criminal offense punishable with jail-time, from 5 to 25 years, for a reporter to receive, hold or publish any classified government document without prior official approval.

I've been wondering when this outrage would register in the American media, and was heartened today to see the New York Times' Op-Ed page (under the new-ish stewardship of editor Trish Hall) open its columns to a trio of enraged South Africans led by Nic Dawes of their country's most redoubtable newspaper, the Mail and Guardian.

The sense of betrayal is understandable. The 1996 constitution of post-apartheid South Africa is often hailed as one of the most progressive national constitutions ever. With considerable specificity it guarantees many freedoms, notably (in this connection) what its Bill of Rights spells out as:

a) freedom of the press and other media...

b) freedom to receive or impart information

This remarkable document was written through the course of the early 1990s with the active and perhaps disproportionately influential participation of journalists themselves. This was hardly surprising. The African National Congress freedom movement, which now runs the government and is so far electorally unchallenged, was historically supported, indeed well-populated, by many brave, determined and effective journalists.

The eloquent Ruth First was a heroic example living in exile, until murdered by the white supremacists' intelligence service in 1982. She was married to Joe Slovo, Chief of Staff of the ANC's military wing, eventually in government its first Housing Minister, and no mean writer himself. (The couple's two daughters, Shaun Slovo and Gillian Slovo are also both full-time writers.)

Along with other leading members of the ANC's eventually triumphant generation, Slovo Senior, if I can call him that, took part in a documentary I made on the movement's history. It was broadcast in Britain and then internationally at a time when he was still under cover and on the run, but the ANC's victory was in sight. Instructively, given the present debate about government and media control, that documentary took me about fifteen years to get funded and about two years to actually make.

My home-base was a nation with an unwritten constitution, but a supposedly free press. (I'm talking about the United Kingdom, just in case that characterization puzzles you.) The piece I wanted British television to carry was titled Spear of the Nation a literal translation of the ANC armed force's name in both Xhosa and Zulu, "Umkhonto we Sizwe". When sentenced to life-imprisonment, Nelson Mandela -- now the very emblem of peaceful national transition -- had been its first Commander). My freedom-loving home-country was then led by Margaret Thatcher, who classed the ANC as "a terrorist organization", the like of which had to be denied what she famously called "the oxygen of publicity".

In such a climate of so-called 'soft' censorship, it unsurprisingly took me the longest time to win investors for the project. In the end, a network company, Thames TV, where I had previously worked on staff, bought and then showed the program. Thatcher's anger at the company was heightened even more by its bravery -- or effrontery, in her mind -- in later broadcasting some tough investigation into the British Army's highly questionable killing of Irish Republican Army members in Gibraltar.

Thames TV was soon denied renewal of its government-issued license to operate. This in a country that I've heard (too many times) called "the cradle of democracy".

Even in a country which, unlike Britain, has an enviable constitution guaranteeing media freedom, the ANC-run government has felt able to be recalcitrant in having that freedom fully recognized or observed in practice. Too often court orders have had to be sought when a journalist needs to enforce his or her right to see 'open' government documents. How much more power to suppress truth is going to be available to government officers who are secretive, corrupt or oppressive (or all three) if this Secrecy Bill is passed into law?

No wonder that the guardians of Mandela's legacy, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, last week issued its own sharp criticism of the measure, saying it fails to meet:

standards of constitutionality and aspirations for freedom of information and expression while at the same time providing protection for legitimate state secrets.

And I can scarcely imagine what reaction might have come from a previous, now long-dead father-figure, whom I was personally delighted to feature in the Spear documentary. That was Pixley Seme, who co-founded the ANC way back in 1912. He was an attorney, an orator and -- oh yes -- a journalist.

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "The Media Beat," with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts from Connecticut NPR station WHDD.

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