Civil Society Deeply Concerned About Roll Back in Democratic Freedoms in South Africa

Civil society organisations express deep apprehension at the recent attempts to strangle the media and the freedom of expression in South Africa. On 3 August, Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested by a large posse of policemen in what appear to be intimidating tactics. He was arrested without a warrant for purportedly being in the possession of a forged letter announcing the resignation of the premier of Mpumalanaga province. He had recently authored a media report on 1 August in which he questioned the police chief’s decision to lease a building to house the top brass of the police at a sum of 500 million rand for ten years.

Relations between the government and independent media groups have been strained of late particularly in respect of the controversial Protection of Information Bill which impedes access to information, and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal to adjudicate perceived misleading reports by the media.

The Protection of Information Bill creates obstacles for civil society and media groups seeking to expose official malpractices by giving the government extensive powers to prevent the communication of information in the “national interest” on the pain of draconian punishments ranging from a minimum of three years imprisonment, extending up to 25 years. National interest is defined through omnibus provisions, which include broad categories such as “all matters relating to the advancement of public good”, the protection of trade secrets of state organs including “profits, losses or expenditures of any person” and the “pursuit of justice, democracy, economic growth, free trade, a stable monetary system and sound international relations”.

As part the policy to bring about wider “media transformation, ownership and diversity”, influential members of the ruling African National Congress are forwarding the idea of a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal to strengthen media accountability. Establishment of such a tribunal constitutes a step towards official media censorship especially as the South African media already have a self regulation body in the form of a Press Ombudsman to oversee complaints of violations of the media code of conduct adopted by the Press Council.

Recent events make us deeply anxious that the gains made during the anti-apartheid struggle which led to the establishment of a non-racial democratic South Africa in 1994 are in danger of being eroded. 

We call upon the South African Government to respect cherished constitutional values which include freedom of the press and other  media by:

(i) cautioning relevant authorities against misuse of the power of arrest against those who exercise democratic dissent;
(ii) withdrawing the Protection of Information Bill in its present form as it is severely obstructive of the people’s right to information; and
(iii) taking adequate measures to ensure that that the right to express freely is protected from encroachments.

Signatories:

1. CAF Southern Africa
2. The Co-operative for Research and Education (CORE)
3. Media Monitoring Africa
4. SANGONeT
5. Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACT-Southern Africa)
6. The Women's Lobby (TWL)
7. Independent Producers’ Organisation
8. Southern African Media and Gender Institute
9. BizCommunity
10. Charisma Communications cc
11. The Big Issue
12. South African Labour Bulletin
13. Rural Women's Movement (RWM) of KwaZulu Natal-South Africa
14. Gay & Lesbian Network
15. RainbowUCT
16. Afesis-corplan
17. Durban YMCA
18. Jacana Media
19. Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC)

For more information please contact CIVICUS:

Devendra Tak
Communications and Media Manager
CIVICUS
devendra.tak@civicus.org

or

Mandeep Tiwana
Policy Manager
CIVICUS
mandeep.tiwana@civicus.org

Tel: +27 11 833 5959

Date published: 
Thursday, 12 August, 2010
Organisation: 
CIVICUS

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