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'Absurd' Parliament policy news to us, say media

Jenni Evans

Media organisations say they had not known about a policy forcing journalists to request interviews with MPs through Parliament's media office.

It was “beyond absurd” to control who journalists spoke to in Parliament through an “unearthed” set of rules, the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association (PGA) said on Tuesday.

“This would imply that interaction with ANC, DA, Cope, IFP, ACDP, Azapo, Minority Front, African People’s Convention and the Pan Africanist Congress staff would be prescribed,” PGA co-chairperson Donwald Pressly said.

The Times reported earlier that Independent Newspapers journalist Deon de Lange’s parliamentary media accreditation might be suspended because he wrote a story relating to the Protection of Information Bill, based on an interview with an unnamed ANC parliamentary official.

According to the report, secretary to Parliament Zingile Dingani wrote to the Independent Group editors asking why he should not withdraw De Lange’s accreditation.

Follow ups then yielded a copy of the Policy on Media Relations Management—signed in 2009—which directs journalists to request interviews with anyone in Parliament through its media office.

Neither the South Africa National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), the Cape Town Press Club, nor the PGA had known about the policy until the action against De Lange, they said on Tuesday.

ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga reportedly also threatened to crack down on De Lange’s source and ordered an investigation.

‘Deeply in the public interest’
The PGA said this meant power struggles within any of the parties could not be reported on or analysed.

“It is beyond absurd because all these matters would be deeply in the public interest. It could even mean that parliamentary journalists would not be able to gain access to annual reports of departments and state entities.”

Pressly said it was “hugely ironic” that Parliament was trying to clamp down on an article on the so-called info Bill.

The PGA had been concerned for some time about subtle attempts to exclude the media wherever possible. This included the requirement to reapply for accreditation by all, and “somehow” the new accreditation cards had not been provided to most of those who had applied, Pressly said.

The document was never circulated or discussed in any form with the PGA.

“Parliament has never approached the PGA to make inputs into this policy. The PGA would never have agreed to many, if not all, of the provisions in the document,” said Pressly.

“This included that journalists should not approach party support staff—itself an utterly absurd notion in a democracy—or employees of Parliament to seek information on parliamentary matters.”

Sanef spokesperson Raymond Louw said the policy was signed at roughly the time the PGA was moved out of the Parliament building to another building in the precinct. At the time, it was seen as an attempt to prevent ready access by reporters to members of Parliament.

Censorship
The policy seemed to have a similar motive—to prevent reporters from having open contact with MPs, Louw said.

“If you want an interview with a parliamentary representative, you have got to apply through the media relations office.”

Louw said Parliament did not have the power to withdraw accreditation—only the speaker, or offfice of the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) had that right.

De Lange had every right to speak to anybody in Parliament and if they didn’t want to give information, it was their choice.

“The intention of removing his accreditation is a form of censorship,” said Louw.

Sanef would ask for a meeting with the speaker and NCOP chairperson, and present its objections in writing.

The Cape Town Press Club urged Parliament to immediately reconsider and leave De Lange to do his job.

Pieter Groenewald, the parliamentary leader of the Freedom Front Plus, said Parliament could not “one-sidedly make decisions for MPs”.

“The media should be allowed to communicate freely with whomever it wishes. It always remains the other party’s prerogative to react or refrain from reacting,” Groenewald said.—Sapa

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