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Freedom of expression and of information should not be taken for granted as South Africa debates the Protection of State Information Bill, the regulation of the media and the role of the judiciary.
This is according to former chief justice of the Constitutional Court Sandile Ngcobo, who was speaking at a constitutional law conference, held in Sandton on Wednesday.
“The right of access to information is a fundamental right,” he said, adding that the constitution envisages a society of citizens, not subjects.
“Citizens question, and they demand. Subjects obey, they accept and they keep quiet,” he said.
The conference comes at a time when, despite reassurances that the media would be given time to “reform” itself and improve its system of self-regulation, the ruling party has put the establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal back on the agenda.
It also follows a process of national hearings concerning the Protection of State Information Bill, which freedom of information advocates have accused of being highly flawed and partisan.
But City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, who spoke at the conference, said there was “no going back”.
“The [parliamentary hearing on the] media appeals tribunal will be held this year; the Protection of State Information Bill is going to pass. The past month’s hearings by a committee of the National Council of Provinces have been a sham to collect a national consensus.”
She said the country appeared to have lost its “DNA of consensus seeking” and that it would soon enter into “a duel fought out in the halls of the judiciary”.
Raymond Louw, vice president of PEN South Africa, said government and some members of the ruling party have begun to show hostility towards the media.
In the past few years, Louw said, there has been an alarming increase in reporters seeking information being “fobbed off” by government officials and that some government departments insist that only certain officials may answer questions.
“All this obstruction, coupled with obfuscation and on occasion the supply of misinformation, has its impact on the ability of reporters to do their work and on the quality and accuracy of their stories,” he said.
But Anton Harber, chairperson of the Freedom of Expression Institute and former editor of the M&G‘s predecessor the Weekly Mail, warned that the media needed to own up to its deficiencies.
Harber said that the South African media needed to confront a basic reality—that public trust in its work is at a low point
“Even the best of our work — is often treated with disdain. We need to rebuild public faith in journalism,” he said.
He said it was not enough for the press to expect that public figures declare their interests while there was no obligation for it to do the same. He called on the press to embrace the practice of “radical transparency” and for journalists to declare their interests publically.
“If we want to show that we are prepared to be accountable not to politicians, but to our publics, then we need to take real steps to do this,” he said.
Louw and Harber agreed that the debate on the regulation of the media in South Africa would be coloured by the findings of the Leveson Inquiry, an investigation into the role of the press and police in the British phone-hacking scandal of 2011.
“Whatever Lord [Justice] Levinson finds is going to have an impact here,” said Louw. “One hopes he won’t find that there needs to be stronger regulation of the press in terms of punishment.”
At the opening of the inquiry in November last year, Lord Justice Leveson, who is leading the investigation, told the British press: “Any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”