Press freedom has been a major issue in post-apartheid South Africa, especially since 2000, when President Thabo Mbeki and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) launched a campaign against the media, accusing it of racism. In fact, the media’s main sin had been to take its new constitutional guarantees seriously, and to hold the new government accountable to its own standards and promises. The ANC did not like the scrutiny, and began lumping the media together with the parliamentary opposition and other “counter-revolutionaries.”
Ironically, the local media would have been inclined to cover the ANC favorably anyway, since–like their U.S. counterparts–they lean heavily left. But the ANC wanted total, lockstep support. The party’s strategy was to use accusations of racism against white editors as a way to push out the journalistic veterans–many of whom had done heroic work exposing the apartheid regime, some even facing prosecution for their role. The problem, the ANC soon discovered, is that many black editors share their white colleagues’ ideas about media independence.
There are a few–both white and black–who do the ANC’s bidding, either expressing their own preferences or merely sensing opportunities for career advances in towing the party line. (The public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, provides a haven for many of those.) Yet there are many who have held out against the pressure. So while the South African media shares a broad left-wing conformity, and has suffered the slow attrition of senior journalists from newsrooms, it remains vigorous, despite its political divisions.
The same cannot be said of the American media, which remains pathetically supine in the face of the Obama administration’s failures. The White House press corps barely nicked President Barack Obama on Friday, after he announced a unilateral (and unlawful) delay in the individual mandate, the core of his Obamacare law, for consumers who had their health insurance policies canceled. CNN’s Brianna Keller took the opportunity to ask the leader of the free world what his New Year’s resolution would be. It would be shocking were it not so typical.
Here in South Africa, journalists are fighting over the dismissal of Alide Dasnois, the Cape Times editor who was fired for failing to lead the paper’s coverage with the story of Nelson Mandela’s death. It turns out that she could not have done so had she tried: the paper had already gone to press by the time the death was announced, so the Times printed a wraparound front page. The lead story she ran that day was about a major corruption scandal that had recently hit the Times‘ new parent company, which just happens to be close to the ANC.
A demonstration for press freedom was held outside the Times‘ office Cape Town. A curious group also staged a counter-demonstration, calling for “transformation” in the media–the implication being that Dasnois should have been fired anyway because she was allegedly racist (a nonsensical accusation). The counter-demonstrators are suspected of being organized by the ANC–part of the plan, again, to exert control over the media. Much of the White House press corps would not need such instruction. They are already eager cadres for Obama’s cause.