RELEASE TIME: 24 September 2010, 9.00am
Institute of Journalists Calls on President Zuma to block legislation
Draft legislation to control and censor the media in South Africa, reminiscent of apartheid-era laws, has been strongly criticised by the Chartered Institute of Journalists, London. A formal joint letter has been sent to South African President Jacob Zuma by the President of the CIoJ, Liz Justice, and the Chairman of the CIoJ’s International Division, Alun Hill, “to make sure that this proposed legislation never reaches the Statute Book”.
The Institute is objecting to two proposed measures, the Protection of Information Bill and a Media Appeals Tribunal. The bill makes it much easier for South African ministers to classify measures and activities as secret or confidential, and it provides for severe penalties – up to 25 years in jail – for journalists or anyone else publishing information about measures or activities that have been classified.
The Media Appeals Tribunal would replace the Press Council and Press Ombudsman to decide what the media can and cannot publish. The present system, which many say works well, is an independent system run by the media and forcing publications to publish large corrections if something they print was untrue or misleading. Members of the ANC, the majority party in South Africa, some of whom have been criticised by the media, want a Media Appeals Tribunal under Parliament’s control to take over the powers of deciding what the media can or cannot publish and what punishment should be given to publications found guilty of printing untrue or misleading information. The Tribunal would be appointed by Parliament and have to report regularly to Parliament.
“Media freedom and independence are essential in a democracy,” write Ms. Justice and Mr. Hill. “The media is the fourth estate of a free democracy, and it needs to be free to perform its important function, to tell the public honestly what is happening in the country and in the world.”
The Protection of Information Bill gives very wide powers to a Government Minister to classify almost any information involving an organ of state, if it is claimed that classification is in the interests of national security. The bill also introduces “severe penalties” of up to 25 years imprisonment to anyone disclosing protected information, refusing to reveal their sources, or even attempting to uncover protected information.
The Institute warns that there is a great danger that the power to classify would be misused to hide incompetence and dishonest activities and to prevent the media publishing information about them. This is particularly so as the minister of state security may delegate the power to classify information or activities to other politicians or to senior officials.
In addition, the CIoJ complains that there are minimal controls on what can be classified, and that there is no public interest clause in the bill, which would enable the media to claim, and the courts to rule, that publishers may print information if it is in the public interest. This in fact makes the minister judge and jury as to what can be classified and what the media can publish.
“The only people who have reason to fear the media,” write Justice and Hill, “are those who are incompetent, corrupt, dishonest, or do things that are against the interests of the country. Politicians who are honest and work in the best interests of the country have nothing to fear.”
The reputation of the media in South Africa in the years since the fall of apartheid has been very good. “It is now one of the most free and best in Africa,” they write. “It would be a shame and a big mistake to reintroduce press censorship and controls similar to those of the apartheid era that would make it much more difficult for the media to keep the people of South Africa informed about what is going on in the country.”
Notes to editors:
Formed in 1884, the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ) is the world’s oldest established professional body for journalists, and a representative voice of media and communications professionals throughout the UK and the Commonwealth.
It has members in South Africa and an interest in the interests of journalists worldwide.