So this is democracy?
Introduction to: "So this is democracy? Review of press freedom in SADC countreis during 1998." Windhoek, Media Institute of Southern Africa.
      by Guy Berger, 1999

The true test of media freedom in a society is during times of high political tension. The year 1998 tested many countries in Misa's area of operation and none came out with flying colours. Sad to say, even some countries with greater political stability did not demonstrate great depth in recognising the democratic importance of unfettered media.

What gains were made in 1998, were not given on a plate, but were fought for. What defences were held, were maintained not through the weakness of attacks but the resilience of the defenders. There was no shortage of powerful forces seeking to silence journalists.

Political tension wracked Lesotho most noticeably. Rioting during the height of the crisis saw the destruction of almost all infrastructure of the independent press. Journalists who were critical of the South African military intervention reported harassment and intimidation by soldiers. And all the way through, increasing pressures were placed on journalists employed in state-owned media to do only partisan reporting

Zambia saw strong polarisation around the treason trial of ex-president Kenneth Kaunda and alleged coup plotters. On at least six occasions, journalists were blocked from covering the case. The whole episode saw Zambian journalists also experience legal injunctions, physical violence and outright detentions (as with Frederick Mwanza) and arrests (as happened Post's Dickson Jere).

The regionalisation of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo had knock-on effects on information flows in Zimbabwe and a selective news blackout imposed by Namibia's government on The Namibian newspaper. Namibia also saw restrictive repercussions on reporters covering secessionist moves in the Caprivi region.

Mass strikes and dissatisfaction saw Zimbabwe's government try unsuccessfully to push ahead with the Public Order and Security Bill. This bill retain colonial-style controls on freedom of speech (banning "subversive" statements) and freedom of association. A decree during the year banned "incitement" of industrial action aimed at forcing legal changes.

Zanzibar's power struggles put press people under severe stress in Tanzania. Two newspapers were banned, at least six journalists detained and curbs imposed on reporting a treason trial there. Surprisingly, Angola, where heavy war clouds thundered, attracted little in the way of Misa's media freedom alerts. Mozambique, a country that has been more successful in dealing with conflict through democratic means, also made little call on Misa.

In other Southern African Development Community countries, all of whose governments have committed themselves to the Windhoek Declaration, the 1998 media environment was generally squeezed rather than freed up. Unhealthily harsh words filled the air as politicians berated the press not only in the countries already mentioned, but also in Swaziland and South Africa. Namibia's Sam Nujoma and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe resorted to strong rhetoric in denouncing independent journalism.

There was significant harassment of media workers by ruling party supporters and the military in Malawi. The same country shared with Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Zambia the dubious status of eroding the editorial autonomy of journalists working in state-owned media. MBC's Molland Nkhatha was retired "in the public interest", and Hamilton Vokhiwa, editor of the Malawian government's Weekly News was dismissed.

Defamation suits, civil and criminal, and brought by people in government, emerged as a common tactic to suppress critical media coverage in many countries. Malawi, Lesotho, Namibia, and Tanzania headed the list on this score. In Zambia, the Post at least had a criminal libel charge dropped by that country's former vice president who said he would pursue a civil claim.

Another common trend was action taken against foreign journalists by various levels of authority. South Africa, Nambia, Angola and Swaziland states were culprits in this regard, while mobs in Lesotho vented extreme violence on media people during that country's turmoil.

A third common feature was state pressure requiring journalists to testify in court cases and/or identify their sources, as happened in Tanzania and South Africa. In Namibia editor Hannes Smit ended the year on bail while appealing against a four month jail sentence for refusing to produce a document.

Also making for bad news in the region was the sorry state of broadcast re-regulation. Malawi again delayed its liberalising legislation, yet went ahead to issue two new radio licences - one to the son of a cabinet minister. Botswana's cabinet sat firm on its plans to put government representatives on a proposed broadcast authority, and signalled a narrow view of how this body would work by refusing community licence applications. It claimed that the Botswana public broadcaster already fulfilled community needs. Zimbabwe's Communications Bill maintained ZBC's monopoly of the airwaves, and left the government with the power to issue licences as well as have final say on hiring and firing in a proposed regulatory authority. In October, the entire board of ZBC was fired for reasons claimed to be related to the commercialisation of the corporation, but suspected to be related to politicians' unhappiness with board decisions that threatened their interests in a lucrative pay-TV network.

Tanzanian journalists needed to go to court in order to challenge their country's broadcast laws. In South Africa, a government white paper and subsequent broadcast bill elicited criticism from that country's public broadcaster (SABC) as well as the airwaves regulator (the Independent Broadcast Authority), that their autonomy was being circumscribed. Although parliament passed the legislation, President Nelson Mandela referred it back to MPs on the grounds that it could be unconstitutional.

The dislike by politicians of institutions that are independent of their control was further evident in several countries. Zambia's parliament pursued an appeal in court in the hope of proving that it should have executive power to jail journalists, and indeed jail them for indefinite terms. This was a follow-up in to the 24-day detention in 1996 of Post editor Fred M'membe and managing editor Bright Mwape which had been ordered by the parliamentary speaker, and which was later declared illegal by a Zambian court. Meanwhile, in two separate cases last year, both parliament and a judge eventually - and in response to protests - backed away from trying to take further direct actions against M'membe and three others. Instead, they asked the state prosecutor to investigate the matter. It was a small victory for due process and the rule of law in Zambia.

Another small victory for free speech, and for keeping parliament within its mandate, was when South African courts ruled that that country's parliament could not exclude opposition MP Patricia de Lille because of remarks she made during one of its sessions.

Additional progress during 1998 can be noted in the way that the threat of state-imposed and government-controlled media councils receded - at least temporarily - during the year. In Zimbabwe former government spokesman and now editor of The Herald, Bornwell Chakaodza, raised the call for "self-regulation" in that country, although this was not taken further by government.

If the ebbing of the media council issue represents some progress in the media being able to do its basic job without hindrance, another positive development was the broad support given to journalists by civil society in several cases. Media freedom might be of greatest concern for persecuted press people, but the real stakeholder in this democratic precondition is the public. Without civil society cherishing media freedom, and without the broadest societal recognition of the indivisibility of media freedom and other freedoms, there is little prospect of journalists successfully withstanding pressures from the powerful.

During the year, this principle was demonstrated in the way that Zimbabwe's media co-operated with civil society to help stop the Public Order and Security Bill. In South Africa, outcry by media and civil society forced the ruling ANC to drop its bid to block publication of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on human rights violations. In Botswana, longstanding protests against prosecution of Caitlin Davies and Letswetswe Phaladi over news reports of crime in Maun led to the case being withdrawn.

Getting state bodies to play the roles they are supposed to play is also an important component of democracy and media freedom. In South Africa, two significant advances were made in this regard. Firstly, a government minister's desire to censor an art exhibition was over-ruled by the country's Film and Publications Board. Secondly, and more importantly, the South African high court in what is known as the "Bogoshi case", overturned decades of defamation case law on the grounds that this contradicted the country's bill of rights. South African journalists therefore now no longer need to prove absolute truth as a defence in defamation cases against them, just that they took reasonable steps to this end while researching the story. Similarly, in Lesotho, MoAfrika's Candi Ramainoane was cleared of contempt of court charges (laid by four cabinet ministers). In explaining his ruling, the judge noted that the country's defamation laws were not in line with the Lesotho Bill of Rights. Another highlight was Zimbabwe's supreme court overturning a 1996 high court ruling against Horizon magazine, in a judgment that said the publication's comments about a military official amounted to fair comment.

Another step forward in South Africa was the tabling of the Open Democracy bill. Although previous "sunshine" provisions giving access to meetings have been dropped, the draft law does codify the right to documented information and also gives some protection to civil servants who blow the whistle in cases of state corruption. Democracy means not just having the state off the backs of the citizens, as important as this is, but also the state being subject to citizens' rights to know what is being decided in their name. The other side of a state that refrains from restricting what information flows within civil society society is a state that allows for transparency and openness within its own operations. The media has a direct interest in both aspects if it is to play its proper democratic role.

Much of 1998 dealt with media freedom in clear black and white terms. However, greyer and more complex issues of media freedom were also raised during 1998. Governments banned pornographic publications in Tanzania and took action towards blocking tobacco advertising in South Africa. Radio Islam based in Johannesburg did not get its licence renewed because of its religious beliefs that excluded women from its broadcasts. Their freedom of expression, it appeared, was at the expense of that of others.

Another matter raising difficult questions was whether newsprint should continue to receive exemption from tax in Tanzania. The issue here is whether special dispensations do not imply special responsibilities, and the question then is: at what price the privilege?

If the trends in 1998 were closely tied in with the political and power dynamics in the region, the same is sure to be the case in 1999. And if, as seems likely, political life will be tougher this year, so will be the lot of media workers as well.

The sensitivity of the Zambian government to coverage around coups was grotesquely amplified in February 1999 in Zimbabwe with the illegal arrest and torture of journalists by that country's military forces following coup reports.

War is also not good for media freedom. Information around the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1999 remains tightly controlled, especially in the state-controlled media. Angola - on a full war-footing - is likely to sacrifice any remaining semblance of freedom of speech in Luanda. The continued lack of police progress in bringing to book the assassins of journalists Ricardo de Mello (1995) and Antonio Casimiro (1996) is guaranteed.

Regional tensions mean that xenophobia may grow and give governments excuses for implementing further constraints on foreign journalists. Elections in 1999 in South Africa, Malawi and possibly Lesotho mean even more pressures on the media - and a legacy that may linger afterwards.

As journalists stood up for their professional duties in 1998, campaigning with civil society and using the courts whereever possible, so they will be called upon to do so even more in 1999. The pointers are, however, that increasingly a region-wide thrust is called for - particularly, because many problems are common currency across countries. Journalists in each country can and should play a part in solidarity with struggles by their adjacent colleagues. The Windhoek Declaration was born in a cross-regional meeting, and the struggle to make it effective needs continuing cross-regional action.

Misa, with its origins in the declaration, is needed now more than ever. But it ended 1998 with problems in a number of chapters, and with journalists in several countries still divided across public/private boundaries or across associational affiliations. If the verdict of 1999 is to avoid being one that concludes there has been a general setback in media freedom in the region, these difficulties will need to be surmounted. Journalists, for once, need not only to look at today's news, but to also focus ahead on tomorrow.