The government is concerned about negative foreign coverage of its perceived attempts to place restrictions on the press and is seeking to meet senior editors to discuss clashing views on its plans, government spokesperson Themba Maseko said on Thursday.
At a briefing on Cabinet’s fortnightly meeting, he said the Government Communication and Information Service (GCIS) was monitoring the media coverage, locally and abroad, over the Protection of Information Bill and the ruling party’s proposal set up a media tribunal that reports to Parliament.
“We do acknowledge that the negative stories are beginning to migrate to the international sphere. We are obviously concerned about that. We think this is something that both Parliament and Cabinet will take into consideration.”
At this stage, there was no plan to withdraw the contentious Bill, though the government would consider the various arguments against the proposed legislation.
Commentators have branded the Bill unconstitutional and a throwback to apartheid-era restrictions on press freedom.
“At this particular point in time there is no decision to withdraw the Bill. However, as submissions come, I think we are not dealing with an intransigent government here,” Maseko said. “So if there are valid, strong arguments being put against the Bill, the government will consider all those submission and, if needs be, it may consider what further action it needs to take.
“Obviously if an impression is created that the Bill is intent on muzzling the media and limiting free speech, it is something that we will be concerned about.”
‘Too much emotion’
The Cabinet had reaffirmed its commitment to meet the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) to discuss “the perception that government is bent on muzzling the media”, Maseko added.
“At that meeting, the government will confirm the fact that there is neither a plan nor an intention on its part to limit media freedom, because muzzling the media would be contrary to the principle of freedom of speech that is enshrined in the Constitution.”
The meeting with Sanef was expected to take place as soon as a mutually convenient date was found.
Maseko said he had personally made contact with Sanef to try to find a suitable date.
“Part of what that meeting must achieve is the creation of an environment for rational and less emotional debate on media freedom,” Maseko said.
The media and the government’s clashing views on whether self-regulation of the industry was sufficient, had to be discussed in a calm manner.
“There is just too much emotion on both sides, which is actually making it difficult for rational discussion and debate to take place,” he said.
“It is a discussion that needs, in my view, to take place without emotion, without people yelling insults at each other, calling each other names, which is what one is observing in a lot of the media stories and articles over the past few weeks.”
He reiterated that the ANC’s proposal for a Media Appeals Tribunal had not yet been adopted by the government, but had to be at the heart of the planned meeting.
“Rational debate is essentially about a discussion of what is the best model for regulating the media.”
He added it was important to understand that there was agreement in the country that there was a need for some kind of regulation.
“The media is of the view that self-regulation is the model, but that there may be a need to change or improve that self-regulation,” he said. “The other proposal from the ruling party is that self-regulation is not a model; it has not worked in the past and you need an alternative.”
Maseko declined to comment on a statement by President Jacob Zuma on Friday questioning the print media’s motives and its ability to judge government’s performance.
The Protection of Information Bill seeks to regulate the classification of information and makes publishing top secret documents a crime punishable with up to 25 years in prison.
The Freedom of Expression Institute has said it appears to be motivated by a desire on the part of government to silence criticism. — Sapa