African Journalists Could Face Prison Over Investigative Reports

A free press, championed by Nelson Mandela, is now threatened by a bill that harks back to apartheid.

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The all-white government insured that this would happen by appointing a governing board of nine members, all of whom were white. In 1945, in cooperation with the Department of Native Affairs, SABC developed a separate radio channel for black South Africans. The purpose of the channel, which eventually was called Radio Bantu, was to entertain, educate and exercise social control over black South Africans. When the Nationalist Party rose to power in 1948, broadcasting and print media were fully within the control of the English and Afrikaners.

These are just two examples of how the Nationalist Party set the foundation for media to become an ideological tool of power and oppression. While there were publications like Drum magazine, a black-owned and -operated publication that fought apartheid, power over the country’s media was held by the all-white government. This is the media environment in which Mandela grew up in South Africa, which helped shape his outlook on the power and use of media.

Mandela understood as a revolutionary that in order to get the story of apartheid out into the world, he and his allies had to make masterful use of the media, which they did. Interestingly, it was through radio that Mandela was able to speak with his people, many of whom were still using violence to fight apartheid after his release from prison, to call for peace and reconciliation as they marched closer to a free and equal society.

It was Mandela who, upon being voted the nation’s first black president, called for the use of media, including entertainment programming, to promote Archbishop Tutu’s "Rainbow Nation" concept, which envisioned people of all colors living peacefully together with equal access to aspirational devices. He and legal scholars also understood that it would take the media to ensure that the hard-fought freedoms of the people of South Africa would stand any chance of survival postapartheid, and that these protections would have to be outlined in the country’s new constitution. It is this constitution that has made it difficult for the current ANC to sign the “secrecy bill” into law in 2013.

As journalists and writers scramble to write the next chapter of Mandela’s life, and argue over which version to promote, hopefully they will consider his actions, which included the use of a free and unrestricted media to create social change.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large at The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.

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