A test for press freedom

It is worth watching developments at the Mail & Guardian.

THE DEPARTURE FOR America of Philip Van Niekerk, editor of the Mail & Guardian, is an important moment for the South African press. Gone are the days when M&G stars would graduate easily to jobs in what the M&G used to refer to as "the mainstream press". After a couple of years of publishing corruption stories embarrassing to government and its friends Van Niekerk would hardly be likely to find a senior position at Independent Newspapers, Business Day or even The Citizen. In other words, if the M&G's investigative and critical tradition is maintained emigration may be almost the only path to promotion for an ex-editor. This is not a bad measure of the degree of government hegemony now established over the press.

What now for the M&G? It is best to keep in mind the model seen elsewhere in post-independence Africa. The incoming African nationalist party either buys up the local press or reaches a deal with a foreign fat cat (Tiny Rowland, Tony O'Reilly) whereby it allows them to own the press in return for their unconditional support - and some free advertising space. The rest of the press is then domesticated, bullied into line or goes out of business. Once this has been achieved the next target are the foreign correspondents of international papers. Some of these can be won over by ideological appeals and VIP treatment but those who can't get attacked in the (tame) local press, have their editors and proprietors lobbied for their removal or, in extremis, get kicked out of the country. Sometimes this happens under a Constitution that enshrines freedom of the press, allowing government spokesmen to make proud declarations about their high principles at the same time that they tread press freedom underfoot. It will be worth watching developments at the M&G to see how far South Africa has travelled down this road.