SA PEN Rejects the Information Bill
13 May 2010
Anthony Fleischer, President SA PEN
One of the evils of apartheid was “information classification” and the State’s efforts to control the flow of news and comment. I recall the Rand Daily Mail‘s resistance to such trends in apartheid days, and recall the role of the SABC and government media under Afrikaner nationalism. Do we have to watch a repeat of depressing history in the name of a new hegemonic African nationalism? In a constitutional democracy people are meant to be free and the press is meant to be free. Freedom of expression is specifically protected in Clause 16 of our 1996 Constitution. 16 (1) (c) says “freedom to receive or impart information or ideas”.
On behalf of the South African Centre of International PEN I strongly reject the unconstitutional clauses of Protection of Information Bill.
Vice President Raymond Louw, (also of the International Press Institute) says this:
The prime targets of this legislation are journalists but writers are equally vulnerable. The subject material which can be declared secret by classification is extremely wide as it is related to an extremely broad definition of the ‘national interest’ – such as ‘all matters relating to the advancement of the public good’, ‘all things owned by the state’, trade, the economy and so on. Also subjects for classification are details of criminal investigation and police and law enforcement methods. In most jurisdictions state secrets are narrowed down to national security issues — and indeed the Johannesburg Principles devised in 1996 to set standards for dealing with official secrets concentrate on national security. This Bill goes overboard. There are other worrying clauses such as powers to refuse to disclose the existence of a classified document – which places everyone in a precarious position. Another dangerous feature is the power given to the Minister of State Security to classify and declassify documents, unwelcome because it will be influenced by political considerations.
Vice President Margie Orford says this:
Transparency and the access to information is fundamental to democratic governance. The South African constitution states that ‘everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state…that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.’ The draft Protection of Information Bill, flawed in multiple ways, subordinates this constitutionally enshrined transparency to a broadly and vaguely defined ‘national interest’. This includes ‘all matters relating to the advancement of the public good…the survival and security of the state and the people of South Africa…the pursuit of justice, democracy, economic growth, free trade, a stable monetary system and sound international relations.’ It is of particular concern that it will not be a judge or a panel of constitutional experts who decide what information must remain secret because it might be ‘harmful’ to the ‘national interest’. This will be decided by the heads of the organs of state and their subordinate officials who will, in turn, be advised, trained and supported by the National Intelligence Agency. This will result in the establishment of an Orwellian censorship system at all levels of government, municipal, regional and national. Those who breach this proposed bill will be liable for jail terms and to punitive fines. This proposed Bill is a direct threat to our constitutional rights and to the duty of journalists and writers to expose corruption and abuses of power. It must be vigorously opposed.
I endorse SA PEN’s rejection of the Information Bill. Nothing scares me more than “national interest”. It is a nebulous notion defined by a political party to serve its interests. “National interests” is in reality ruling party interest.
– Zakes Mda
International Press Institute Joins `Black Wednesday’ Press Freedom Commemoration in South Africa
Acting Director Warns of Press Freedom Decline in the Country
JOHANNESBURG, 20 October 2010: Thirty-three years after an Apartheid regime banned two newspapers and clamped down on anti-apartheid activists and associations, South Africa recognized what is commonly known as “Black Wednesday” with a series of events around the country.
In the country to lobby against proposed media regulations, IPI Acting Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said, “Today is a day on which we recall a dark day in South Africa’s past. It was a day 33 years ago in which, under the brutal apartheid regime, freedom of expression suffered another blow.”
IPI participated in the annual National Media Freedom Day at Wits University. The day-long event featured three panel discussions, including: “Freedom of Expression is Every Citizen’s Business,” co-sponsored by the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) and the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, and “Media Freedom, Media Reform”, sponsored by the Embassy of Sweden in Pretoria, the International School of Transparency, SANEF and the Journalism Program at Wits as well as the Wits School of Law.
This year’s “Black Wednesday” events hold particular relevance in light of recent debates centering on a government proposed Media Advisory Tribunal and a Protection of Information Bill.
IPI is concerned that throughout the southern Africa region, governments are moving towards increased regulation of the media by statute. Last week, an IPI delegation in Zambia urged the government to reconsider its move to establish a statutory “self-regulatory” body, despite the fact that the media community in Zambia has already put in place mechanisms for an entirely voluntary and independent media council, the Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC).
As a regional leader, the South African government should recognise the potentially detrimental repercussions any restrictions on the media in South Africa may have throughout the region.
IPI’s concerns in South Africa centre on the Protection of Information Bill currently in Parliament, and the African National Congress’ calls for a Media Appeals Tribunal that would supplant the independent voluntary South Africa Press Council. The Protection of Information Bill, which is designed to regulate the classification of state information, also encourages secrecy and contains penalties for whistleblowers that IPI fears would curtail investigative journalism, thereby threatening government transparency.
“The significance is back in 1977 when the Apartheid government banned newspapers and individuals and organisations, and it was an illegitimate government and ever since then it has always been commemorated. Since 1994 we have a constitution that cemented media freedom and we celebrate that”, said Mondli Makhanya, Chairman of the South African National Editors’ Forum.
“For the first time since 1994, we see real threats to media freedom and this is happening under a democratic government which is supposed to uphold constitutional values and defend our freedoms but rather seems to be going the other way. That is why South African media and civil society have been working so hard to make sure that this is nipped in the bud.
“The other thing we want to emphasise with this year’s event is that media freedom is not just about us journalists. It’s about every citizen’s right to know.”
Earlier in the day the Right to Know Campaign staged a march in Johannesburg in protest of the Freedom of Information Bill. According to Lauren Hutton, of Right to Know, the organisation will present a petition to Parliament next Thursday.
Joining Bethel McKenzie at the commemorative event was IPI Fellow and Chairman of the South African Press Council, Raymond Louw, and IPI Press Freedom Adviser Naomi Hunt and IPI Communications Officer Nayana Jayarajan.
Panellists at the Wits University event included Professor Kader Asmal, member of the African National Congress (ANC) and a former member of Parliament; Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of the Mail and Guardian newspaper; Mandli Makhanya, Chairman of SANEF; former Swedish member of Parliament, former newspaper publisher and deputy Finance Minister, Olle Waestberg; Swedish Ambassador to South Africa, Peter Tejler; and Lumko Mtimde, ANC leader and chief Executive of Media Development and Diversity Agency, amongst several others.
For more information, please contact:
International Press Institute