State vs media: false dichotomy

In Parliament this week the tension was tangible as civil society and media organisations made representations to an ad-hoc committee processing the Protection of Information Bill, a new secrecy Act.

The Mail & Guardian and amaBhungane, its non-profit investigative associate, were there to do battle. Questions from the assembled MPs were tough. We hope we scored some hits, but we also bear scars where we were hit.
That’s okay, we can take it. After all, the free flow of information and the robust debate we experienced there are not only the lifeblood of our industry, they also represent democracy in action.

So we won’t be crybabies, but we will engage in yet more democratic debate and shout this from the rooftops: if this Bill in its current form becomes law and if other initiatives aimed at unduly reining in the media — such as the proposed media tribunal — become a reality, this free flow of information will be stemmed. Not only will the lifeblood of the media be cut off, but also the lifeblood of democracy itself.

Proponents of the Bill have posed what they regard as fundamental dichotomies: personal dignity versus unfettered flow of information, the broad national interest versus the right to know, as enshrined in the Constitution.

This way of seeing the matter echoes the way a reactionary United States has typified it post-9/11: national security versus civil liberties.
And so, the question becomes: How to balance these competing interests?

The dichotomies are false. As a former CIA lawyer put it at a seminar this week: don’t balance the two. Transparency and openness make government stronger, enhancing national security. Keep your secrets to an absolute minimum; that way you can protect them better. Engender trust in your decisions about what to keep secret by disclosing the maximum. The same goes for the argument about personal dignity.

The Protection of Information Bill is just one half of a two-pronged attack on freedom of information in general and on freedom of the media in particular. The other is the resurgence of proposals within the ANC for the creation of a statutory media tribunal that would regulate the conduct of the press.

Such an organ would be structurally inimical to media freedom, even if presented in the most neutral fashion, but the examples chosen by its proponents to justify its creation are chilling.

For example, the ANC has suggested that a tribunal would be able to clamp down on reporting about the lavish, taxpayer-funded lifestyles of Cabinet ministers. Such reporting is the most basic example of what the Constitution and a growing body of common law enjoin us to do.

It has also been suggested that reporting on the controversial “autopsy” painting of Nelson Mandela should not have been allowed. Clearly this represents the most basic kind of reporting on culture and matters of national debate.

What both the Bill and the tenor of debate about a media tribunal represent is a deepening hostility to both a free press and the free flow of information.

These are not ornaments glued to our democratic architecture; they are part of its very foundations.

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