US publications weigh in on SA media freedom

A body representing major media houses in the United States has sent a letter to President Jacob Zuma urging him to shelve legislative proposals that would “severely restrict” South African media.

“We call on you as the head of state and leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to ensure that such proposals are either amended in line with constitutional safeguards for freedom of the press and access to information, or withdrawn altogether in the interest of preserving the transparency, accountability, and democracy gained after apartheid,” the letter penned by the newly established Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said.

The committee, consisting of leading media houses including NBC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post, was responding to the ANC’s proposal on an independent media tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill.

“The Protection of Information Bill currently before parliament is meant to replace an apartheid-era law dating from 1982… It would virtually shield the government from the scrutiny of the independent press and criminalise activities essential to investigative journalism, a vital public service,” the letter said.

Journalists, under the proposed law, would face “heavy” jail time for violations.

No explanation
The committee said according to its research and legal experts, officials and state agencies would have unchecked authority to classify any public or commercial data as secret, confidential, protected, or sensitive based on “national interest” and without any explanation.

“National interest would, for instance, include details of criminal investigations, a definition that risks chilling coverage of public law enforcement and judicial matters,” it said.

Journalists found guilty of unauthorised disclosure of official or classified information could face up to 25 years in jail.

The committee said further that the proposed tribunal would issue “unspecified sanctions” for complaints against the press.

“Moreover, we believe members of the public already have mechanisms of legal redress to settle disputes with the press in addition to the existing media self-regulatory institutions,” it said.

Wa Afrika
The CPJ said it was also concerned that the arrest of Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika may have been in retaliation for critical coverage of ANC officials.

“The growth of South Africa’s democracy will depend on the government’s acceptance and tolerance of the media’s scrutiny of its performance,” the CPJ said.

“We therefore call on you to amend or shelve the Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunals proposal as they undermine guarantees for a free media and access to information as enshrined in the Constitution.”

The letter comes just days after the Vienna-based International Press Institute — a global network of publishers, editors and journalists –sent a similar letter to Zuma saying that recent moves would endanger the independence and vitality of South African media. — Sapa

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