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Hands Across the Sea — Linthicum’s Letter for April 2013

By Tom Linthicum

A robust and free press is very much alive and well in South Africa these days. In fact, freedom of the press is a key provision of the Bill of Rights in the post-apartheid constitution.
In that Bill of Rights, described in the constitution as “a cornerstone of democracy,” Article 16 guarantees “freedom of the press and other media,” freedom “to receive or impart information or ideas,” freedom of “artistic creativity” and “academic freedom for scientific research.”

While some rags and scandal sheets can be found – just like in the U.S. – there are plenty of examples of enterprising, courageous journalism on display here. A number of newspapers are willing to shine a light on corruption and inefficiency in government at all levels and to report on power grabs and behind-the-scenes relationships between government and business that drive policy and line the pockets of public and private officials in positions of influence.

The Mail & Guardian newspaper was a participant in the worldwide investigative reporting project rolled out in early April by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a U.S.-based nonprofit. Reporters from 46 countries working on the project drew from a cache of leaked records that illuminated the heretofore secret dealings of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts.

The Washington Post and other newspapers around the world have published stories based on research generated by this project.

In its April 5 issue, South Africa’s Mail and Guardian published a two-page spread based on those records revealing that millions of dollars flowed into the accounts of three Johannesburg businessmen in the British Virgin Islands in a secret effort by the then-President of the Republic of Congo to obtain surplus South African air force helicopters in 1997. The choppers were never delivered but the cash was.

In that same issue, the M&G disclosed that a South African arms manufacturer appears intent on selling missile-firing drones to Saudi Arabia (something the U.S. has so far refused to do), and it published a package of stories raising serious questions about the government’s recent disastrous military intervention in the Central African Republic and the reasons for it, including lucrative deals of politically connected South African businessmen with the recently deposed CAR government.

Locally, the newspaper in East London, The Daily Dispatch, revealed that the local police department was running out of rape kits and quoted detectives saying they had asked for more but the police bureaucracy said they weren’t available. The story was accompanied by outraged quotes from prosecutors and women’s rights advocates.

In Grahamstown, Grocott’s Mail reported last November that the council had approved the purchase of a pricey new car for the mayor. An uproar ensued, and at last report, the car had still not been purchased.
“We can see the mayor’s parking space from our window, so they can’t hide it,” said Editor Steven Lang. “Whenever they buy the car, we will take a picture of it and write a front page story about it. They know that and we know that.” Checkmate.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Grahamstown’s recent 10 days without water due to still-unexplained breakdowns in the pumping system, the municipal government was publicly skewered for its incompetence by a city resident who is a former chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission.

In a scathing column for the Sunday Weekend Argus, Barney Pityana wrote that “access to water is one of the socio-economic rights entrenched in our Bill of Rights.” Depriving Grahamstown citizens of clean water, he concluded, amounted to a violation of the constitution.

For all its progress, this country still has many serious problems, but press freedom is not one of them. The press has its imperfections (more on that in a future column), as does any free press anywhere, but day in and day out, it usually does what a free press is supposed to do -- report the news without fear or favor, hold decision-makers accountable for their actions and be a voice for the voiceless.

As always, all ideas are appreciated. Best to all.

Tom Linthicum
You can write to Tom at lthomas155@aol.com.
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