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U-turn on the long walk to freedom

STATE-run newspapers anywhere tend to be pretty awful. The Times of Zambia is no exception. A front-page banner headline earlier this month praised the country’s president, Rupiah Banda, for “doing a good job”.

The paper did not mention the copper-rich country’s dismal 150th place (out of 169) in the latest UN Human Development Index, nor the fact that Zambia is one of only three countries (along with Zimbabwe and Congo) whose human-development score is actually lower than it was in 1970.
By contrast, Zambia’s only independent paper, the Post, is entertainingly merciless. A front-page headline in April pronounced that the president had “a small brain”. But most of its stories are worthy, challenging conventional wisdom and powerful interests, and often exposing failings in all three of Zambia’s main political parties. That is no way to make friends in politics, of course, and the Post has honourably few. Influential readers have flung stones and punches in its direction. The government sues constantly, mimicking its counterparts in neighbouring countries.
Press freedom is under threat across southern Africa. Zimbabwe is the worst offender, but others are not far behind. In Mo Ibrahim’s index of good governance the southern part of the continent generally does well. Four of the five top places on the 53-country index go to members of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), nine of its members feature in the top 20. But when it comes to press freedom, not a single Sadc country — other than little Mauritius in the Indian Ocean — is deemed “free” by Freedom House, a think-tank based in Washington, DC.
Perhaps the saddest case, because it is the most unexpected, is South Africa’s. After winning power in 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) moved fast to lift the press shackles of the apartheid era, enshrining freedom of expression as well as “the right to access any information held by the state” in the country’s 1996 constitution. But, now in government and thus on the receiving end of the media’s lash, the ANC’s passion for a free press has waned.
Government attempts to curb South Africa’s vigorously independent media have already led to South Africa being demoted from “free” to “partly free” in this year’s analysis of press freedom by Freedom House.
In next year’s index, South Africa’s score is likely to slip further if proposed press-gagging measures make their way into law. Among them is the coyly named Protection of Information Bill, under which journalists (and others) could face up to 25 years in jail for possessing or publishing classified state information. Any minister or official would be able to classify documents. Many fear this will be used to block the revelation of government scandals. –– Economist.

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