/ 9 December 2011

Global journalists’ body distressed by info Bill

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) voiced concern about the Protection of State Information Bill on Friday.

“We are here to stand in solidarity with our media colleagues … We share [their] deep concerns,” CPJ chair Sandra Mims-Rowe said in Johannesburg.

At a meeting with ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu on Thursday, the CPJ urged the government not to pursue with the Bill in its current form, she said.

“There is no place for such a broadly-worded [Bill] in a democracy. South Africa is seen as a beacon of freedom throughout the world,” it said.

Mthembu told the CPJ that the African National Congress believed the bill was needed to replace apartheid-era law and safeguard state secrets, and denied that it was a gag on the media.

“There is no intention to curb media freedom in this country,” he told CPJ.

The press needed to strengthen self-regulation to better balance an individual’s constitutional right to dignity against the media’s right to publish, Mthembu reportedly said.

The CPJ is an independent non-profit organisation based in New York which seeks to promote media freedom worldwide.

The Bill was passed on November 22 in the National Assembly by 229 votes to 107, with two abstentions.

The absence of a public interest defence clause in the Bill is a major point of contention as those who report corruption could face criminal charges.

Broad definitions of terms in the Bill — such as what constitutes a matter of national interest — have also been criticised as being potentially detrimental to transparency and government accountability.

Endless appetite to control
Mims-Rowe said the Bill in its current form would criminalise whistle-blowing and put a chill on investigative reporting.

“Free speech is a pillar of democracy,” she said.

If passed, the CPJ hoped the Constitutional Court would overturn it.

“We can act as a megaphone for your concerns.”

CPJ deputy director Rob Mahoney said the Bill could cause caution and self-censorship among journalists.

“Once a government starts to control information, it has an endless appetite,” Mahoney said.

More concerns
Mims-Rowe added that if the Bill went through it would send a negative message to the international community.

The CPJ said it was equally concerned about an ANC proposal for a media appeals tribunal to examine complaints against newspapers.

The Press Council of South Africa currently provided a self-regulatory mechanism for readers to address grievances against newspapers that published apologies and retractions if complaints against them were upheld.

The CPJ ended a week-long visit to South Africa on Friday.

Mims-Rowe said it had come to the country on a fact-finding mission at a critical time.

During its visit, it met a broad spectrum of journalists, editors, press freedom advocates and civil society leaders to discuss the Bill.

Jailed reporters
As part of its work, the CPJ often provides support to journalists across the world who have been jailed.

Mahoney said the CPJ’s annual report, released on Thursday, revealed that at least 179 journalists were being held captive. This was a 15-year high, he said.

In Africa, 43 journalists were currently imprisoned.

“This is only a conservative number,” Mahoney said.

On Tuesday, the ANC met the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), and Media Monitoring Africa to discuss the Bill.

ANC parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said the meeting had allowed parties to listen to each other “beyond the noise that has been created in the media where we were speaking past each other”.

Last week, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Sanef and the Right2Know Campaign announced a seven-point plan of resistance to the legislation.

Proponents of the Bill argue that it is essential to establish a legal framework for the handling of sensitive state information.

The National Council of Provinces has yet to debate the legislation. This must happen before it can be signed into law by President Jacob Zuma. — Sapa