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S. Africa's free media have no friend in Mbeki

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Free and vigorous news media are essential to democracy, especially in the developing world, where there is little other accountability. Yet vigilant media threaten those leaders who prefer unquestioned control and propaganda outlets.

This tension between government-imposed discipline and honest, fearless journalism has been growing in South Africa, a critical bastion of freedom on a continent where media independence is mostly honored in the breach.

Now, in a worrying move mirroring some of the tactics of unsavory regimes elsewhere in Africa, President Thabo Mbeki's South Africa proposes to change the giant South African Broadcasting Corporation from an independent public radio and television entity into a government propaganda machine.

The corporation's charter now enshrines freedom of expression. A crucial clause reads that the corporation will "enjoy freedom of expression and journalistic, creative, and programming independence."

The government wants to remove that clause and replace it with language that ensures "responsible" and "accurate, accountable and fair reporting," as defined by the government. Journalists for the corporation would have to act in the "best interests" of the corporation, and South Africa.

The board that runs the corporation would have to prepare a plan for the minister of communications showing how its journalists and broadcasters would ensure "responsible" reporting that conforms to the "best interests" of the nation.

Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, the minister, wants the corporation, as South Africa's public broadcaster, to be accountable to South Africa. She also wants the corporation's work to comply with standards of "decency."

Broadcasters who provide "misinformation" that causes currency devaluations, for example, are not appropriately "accountable to South Africa." They would be doing a disservice to the nation. Journalists should not undermine the economy, she said.

"We want accountability; we also want to ensure that you don't have somebody who can actually cause you wars because of what they broadcast," the minister said.

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