State vs media: False dichotomy

In Parliament last 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.

Is investigative journalism under threat? The Protection of Information Bill has been reintroduced to Parliament, at the same time as the ANC is proposing an ominous â??media tribunalâ??. M&G Editor Nic Dawes explains the danger of the proposed changes for journalists â?? and for the public.
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 recent seminar: 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.

Talk tough, act tougher
President Jacob Zuma used all the right words on Thursday after the mid-year Cabinet lekgotla to show that things would change for the better—and soon.

The delivery agreements for ministers are almost finalised, so slacking ministers will soon know their fate and government will focus on 12 ­“outcomes”.

But, despite his big words, not a single new idea has emerged. The only successes in health he could point to were inroads in the fight against polio and measles. Even the so-called “outcomes” are reminiscent of those apex priorities that Thabo Mbeki flagged in the dying days of his presidency.

But most alarmingly, on the issue of job creation, there was nothing new.

During Zuma’s State of the Nation address in February he came up with the idea of a youth wage subsidy, which would see new entrants into the job market getting paid less, but would ensure that they do find some kind of employment that could jumpstart a career.

On Thursday Zuma told reporters the issue was not discussed at the lekgotla because of the raft of criticisms of the idea.

The critics are Cosatu, which told government in no uncertain terms that it would not stand for younger workers being employed under different rules from the rest.

And right there, in his refusal to stand firm on crucial matters, Zuma’s mantra of doing things differently falls flat.

It is disappointing to see the president is not willing to take a tougher stance on this, given that job creation will be the standard by which South Africa soars or stumbles. It is clear he is in favour of a youth wage subsidy because, in a slightly annoyed tone of voice, he said that those who criticise have not come up with any better ideas.

For all Zuma’s talk of keeping the effectiveness barometer as high as it was during the World Cup, he will have to act tougher rather than just talking tough.

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