Journalism schools on Monday added their voices to criticism of the proposed media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill.
“We reject the proposal for a media appeals tribunal and the current version of the Protection of Information Bill,” they said in a statement.
“We are also extremely concerned about a climate of intimidation and suspicion that has included the heavy-handed arrest of journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika,” they said, referring to the arrest of Sunday Times journalist Wa Afrika in early August.
Sixteen educational institutions signed the statement, including the journalism schools at Rhodes University, Tshwane University of Technology, and the universities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Witwatersrand.
The government’s draft Protection of Information Bill and the ANC’s proposed media tribunal have come under heavy criticism, which has led to debate about media freedom.
The ANC has argued that the current media watchdog, the press ombudsman, is not sufficient and an alternative to self-regulation is needed.
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.
“As educators, scholars and researchers in journalism and media studies in South Africa, we stand for the values of media freedom, informed debate and intellectual rigour.
“This background explains why we fear that the cherished democratic values of freedom of expression, media freedom and the right to information are currently at risk,” the journalism schools said.
These developments had led to a rapid deterioration in the relations between the state and the media, they said.
“Further, we are concerned that the ensuing discussion about the state of media freedom in the country has taken on an antagonistic, either-or character which worsens these tensions instead of working towards solving the underlying problems.”
The schools said one of their jobs was to prepare students to join the media industry. They were concerned at what the developments signalled to young South Africans wanting to start careers in journalism.
“As scholars and researchers we are not blind to the faults of the South African media.
“In our scholarship we will continue to point to these shortcomings and suggest ways of improving the media’s democratic role.
“But critique can only bear fruit in an environment that allows for unhindered investigation, the gathering of sound empirical evidence, and the free exchange of ideas.”
The signatories undertook to prepare students to be ethical media practitioners and to research alternative ways of managing conflict between the media, state, business and civil society.
They also undertook to “create spaces for debate between the public and members of the media industry about the media’s role in a democratic South Africa.”
The signatories said they would work together on a colloquium to address these issues. — Sapa