South Africa found itself on the receiving end of significant international condemnation, during a UN review of its human rights record this week.
The United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland all expressed concerns that the proposed laws could threaten media freedom.
The intervention – the biggest collective stand yet taken by foreign governments on the issue – was welcomed by activists who oppose the Protection of State Information Bill, which could make journalists and whistleblowers vulnerable to prison sentences of up to 25 years.
South Africa’s human rights record was scrutinised by a working group of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva recently. A draft report of the meeting shows Spain “asked about measures adopted to ensure that the future protection of state information does not curtail freedom of the press and the right to information on possible inappropriate action by public officials”.
Sweden “noted that the Bill might lead to restrictions on media freedom”.
Germany called on South Africa to “safeguard the freedom of the press, through the abrogation of the protection of information Bill”.
The US urged: “Engage civil society, activists, NGOs and media to seek common ground on the Protection of State Information Bill.”
Canada recommended that South Africa “ensure that the Protection of State Information Bill and other statutory measures do not violate the right to freedom of expression or unduly impede access to public domain information”. Norway said the country should make sure the Bill “fully complies with international human rights law”.
Czech Republic asked South Africa to “reconsider the Protection of State Information Bill to ensure its conformity with ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], in particular by removing excessive penalties for publication of classified information and the inclusion of a public interest defence”.
Poland urged South Africa to “continue amending and improving the project of the Protection of State Information Bill as this law, in the form proposed to the Parliament earlier this year, has the potential to undermine the right to access to information and freedom of expression under the pretext of national security and national interest”.
Switzerland recommended: “Amend the draft Bill on the protection of state information so that freedom of press is not curtailed in a disproportionate manner.”
Portugal added: “Consider suspending the enactment of the Protection of State Information Bill, approved last November.”
In response, South Africa’s delegation insisted the Bill was not aimed at the media. “The primary purpose is not to regulate or interfere in any way with the media or access to information, but seeks to amend current statutes not consistent with our Constitution,” it said. “Government has been very open and has engaged with the media and with civil society. The draft Bill is currently before Parliament.”
Editors, lawyers, writers and leading public figures such as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu have previously spoken out against the Bill. Some warned it could lead to similar crackdowns in other African states.
South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said views expressed at the UN would boost efforts to amend the legislation. MP Alf Lees said: “We welcome any influence brought to bear that will result in the Bill being amended to make it more acceptable and constitutional.”
Noting South Africa’s remarks that Bill is not intended to curb the media, Lees commented: “Whether or not it is the purpose of the Bill is debatable. The fact remains that the Bill in its current form still poses a significant threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Constitution ... The concerns raised in the UNHRC discussions provide greater impetus to the [parliamentary] committee to make further changes to the Bill to ensure that it is brought in line with the Constitution.”
Debate on the Bill was stalled again this week. A hearing of the ad hoc committee in the National Council of Provinces scheduled for Wednesday was postponed indefinitely. The state security department has rejected ANC proposals to water down the Bill. – © Guardian News and Media 2012