AmaBhungane advocacy co-ordinator Vinayak Bhardwaj and managing partner Stefaans Brümmer claim that their unit applies full journalistic rigour and does research before bringing a story to publication. Why then, in preparation for their article "Another threat to journalism" (July 27 to August 2), could they not read the Protection of Personal Information Bill properly?
The headline states as fact, not as a question, that the Bill is "another threat to journalism". The article says "citizen journalists … who are not members of a professional body and thus unable to access the protection of the press and broadcasting codes" will end up "having their work criminalised" and that the Bill will "outlaw citizen journalism altogether". These assertions are just not true.
The only information-processing activities the Bill criminalises are the abuse of the financial – including banking – and credit account numbers of members of the public without permission and the theft, procurement and on-selling of such account numbers, which is rife in South Africa.
Parliament's justice committee wants to insert this in the Bill because of problems such as people finding their bank accounts debited without their knowledge.
In the main, the Bill sets out conditions for processing personal information. It establishes an independent information regulator to monitor the process.
If personal information is not processed according to the conditions set out, it is not a crime. A complaint may be laid with the regulator, who may order that the processing be stopped or conform to the conditions. Only if this order is broken is a crime committed.
The regulator will help all processors of information to meet the requirements long observed elsewhere in the world since computerisation and assist citizens and consumers lodging complaints of breach of their privacy by, for example, a failure to secure their consent for processing of private information. The regulator may also be asked to help a citizen to pursue a claim for damages against a business that has abused their information.
The "citizen journalists" – the bloggers, home-based writers, amateur photographers, video journalists and so on – will be able to continue as they have before.
But the provisions of the Bill would come into play if, for example, a blogger placed online a list of women who had had abortions or the membership of the local Alcoholics Anonymous branch. An affected person could lay a complaint with the regulator. If the regulator ordered that the offending blog be removed from the internet and the blogger refused or failed to do so, then he or she would be liable for prosecution.
The justice committee is anxious that the Bill should not interfere with media freedom. It has spent much time considering an exemption for journalists. It listened carefully to the oral submissions of the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) on this and invited it to return to discuss with the committee the wording of that section.
Unfortunately, the Sanef delegation did not have a common view of what it wanted.
One editor's proposal that a Sanef member continue to work with the committee was unfortunately turned down by the rest of the delegation. But what Sanef asked for is now in the Bill.
It is a pity that the media has not given much attention to the positive aspects of the Bill.
For example, it will provide a real mechanism to exercise the right to privacy of one's personal information.
We are confident the public will welcome the Bill. – John Jeffery, MP and chair of the technical subcommittee of the justice committee dealing with the Protection of Personal Information Bill