The years 2007 and 2008 saw a bitter and dirty leadership contest being fought out in the ruling ANC, with the press co-opted (wittingly in some cases) into a weapon for disseminating information designed to discredit a particular side (see Berger, 2008b). Two stories in particular played within this political space. The most significant was an expose of the Minister of Health in the cabinet of Thabo Mbeki and which was based partly on information gleaned from her private medical records. The other story was about the then imminent rape charges facing the dismissed deputy president Jacob Zuma even before he appeared in court. Both raised questions of rights to individual dignity and privacy, as against press claims of superior public interest. This was not an academic discussion. Supercharged with political rationales, neither the Mbeki nor the Zuma camps were happy about what was appearing in the press, and voices from each complained that the press was elevating freedom of the press at the expense of individual rights.
At the same time, between 2007 and 2008, the government sought to reform the Film and Publications Act to combat what it saw as child pornography in circulation including in the press. This move threatened to introduce pre-publication licensing for PMSA members, which provision unsurprisingly elicited strong condemnation and press fears about government’s political interests. The status quo of press freedom and self-regulation in the post-apartheid regime was now evidently in flux.
In this context, the ANC National Policy conference in June 2007produced a document titled “Communications and the battle of ideas”, in which several points were made (ANC 2007a). It was stated that the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the media “need to be weighed against other constitutional rights, such as the right to human dignity and privacy”. The document continued:
“In this regard, an investigation should be conducted into:
the adequacy or otherwise of the prevailing self regulatory dispensation within the media;
whatever remedial measures may be required to safeguard and promote the rights of all South Africans;