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SA should be proud of electoral freedoms

The Star

All over southern Africa, the media is stifled, especially when it comes time to vote; we have much to be grateful for, says Shannon Ebrahim.

What our local government elections proved last week was that democracy in South Africa is stronger than ever, and it is something South Africans should be very proud of.

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975 03/07/16 Resdients from Protea Glen line up to cast thier vote during a dusty day in Soweto Picture:Nokuthula Mbatha

If we look around the southern African region, the tenets of democracy are not as strong as they are in South Africa, and in some instances, elections are being accompanied by significant violence and abuse of state institutions and resources.

In South Africa, when the state broadcaster was perceived to have clamped down on media freedom, a relentless civil society campaign was launched to reverse this.

The strength of a democracy can often be judged by the freedom of its fourth estate.

In our country, freedom of the press is protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice, but increasingly this has not been the case in a number of other SADC countries.

The most recent example is Zambia, which held its elections on Thursday amid fears of violence.

The election period saw the ruling party clamp down on media freedom, with Zambia’s public broadcaster refusing to air the main opposition party’s political campaign documentary.

In June, the government shut down the country’s only independent newspaper, The Post, leaving the state media with a monopoly on election coverage.

Since then, personnel of The Post have been in hiding, with its deputy editor Joseph Mwenda working in one location, while its journalists work in another.

As a result of the government’s clampdown on radio stations and other forms of media in the election period, the opposition parties had to do prolific campaigning across the country.

The main opposition party faced difficulties with rally permits denied, posters and billboards turned down, and its vice-presidential candidate arrested and his home tear-gassed. Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema claimed an opposition supporter had been beaten to death by ruling party activists.

The violence that accompanied electioneering became so serious that the electoral body suspended campaigning for 10 days in Lusaka and Namwala.

The electoral body warned voters would be afraid to turn up to vote if the violence continued. What made matters worse was that President Edgar Lungu said he was willing to take draconian measures to restore order.

While it was forecast that there would be more female than male voters at the polls, only 10 percent of the electoral candidates were women, highlighting the patriarchal nature of Zambian society.

This stands in contrast with South Africa where 60 percent of the ANC and EFF proportional representation candidates were female, while the DA fielded a third women. This is a significant accomplishment in terms of gender equality that is not acknowledged enough in our own society.

If we look beyond Zambia, media freedom has been struck significant blows in Lesotho and Angola.

In July, the editor of the Lesotho Times and Sunday Express was shot in an assassination attempt, and the publisher and chief executive of the newspaper group, Basildon Peta, charged with crimen injuria.

The Lesotho government has been openly hostile to the Lesotho Times, and Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili has accused the country’s newspapers of being too critical of the government.

Recently, a spokesperson of one of the parties in the coalition government went on air calling for Peta to be killed.

The suppression of media freedom in Angola has an even longer genesis; the last remaining independent newspaper was closed down in 2014.

In 2010, a state security law was enacted, allowing for detention of people who insult the republic or its president in public or in print.

In 2015, the scope of the criminal code in this regard was broadened.

Rafael Marques de Morais, the Angolan journalist and human rights activist who has received several international awards for his reporting on conflict diamonds and government corruption, was charged with defamation in 1999 and fought a lengthy court battle.

Last year, he received the Allard Prize for International Integrity.

If South Africans look around at what is transpiring in other countries, even in their immediate vicinity, they can be proud that 22 years after the advent of democracy, South Africans can vote without fear of violence or repression, that opposition parties enjoy an even playing field, women are widely represented at all levels of government, and we still have a vibrant, dynamic and free media.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for Independent Media.

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