The South African Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-SA), has been deeply alarmed at the contents of the Protection of Information Bill and the proposals by the African National Congress (ANC) to set up a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal. MISA-SA fears that both will clamp down on the free flow of information and the media's ability to gather and publish information for the benefit of the public.
MISA-SA has been saddened, too, by a view that though there are many concerned members of the public who share the media's concerns about these two developments and the restrictive effects they will have on the public's right to know, the general public at large does not appear to realise that perhaps its most vital freedoms - its own freedom of expression and access to information - is under extreme threat.
There is a curious view prevalent among the public that media freedom is some special attribute that is the prerogative of the few thousand journalists, editors, publishers and writers in the country. In reality, however, “media freedom'” is no more and no less than the people's freedom. Indeed, media freedom is everybody's freedom. When media freedom is eliminated, it is also the end of the man-in-the-street's freedom.
The Bill, which is intended to define what information should be declared by the state to be secret, has many worrying aspects, the prime one being that, unlike state secrecy laws in other democracies, it defines information that can be classified as secret as that which may harm the “national interest”. Its definition of the “national interest’’ is so broad as to include every kind of activity that all levels of government and civil society are engaged in. This could have the effect that information that should be available to the public is classified and thus kept secret. For journalists the danger is that they may come into possession of classified in formation from a whistle-blower which could expose them to lengthy prisons terms. It could stifle investigative reporting.The Media Appeals Tribunal is seen by journalists as a mechanism to control the press and force it to publish news that pleases the government. The ANC disclosed its aims in the discussion document prepared for the ANC's national general council meeting to be held next month. The document stated: “Our objectives therefore are to vigorously communicate the ANC's outlook and values versus the current mainstream media's ideological outlook.
It reinforces this with: “The ANC is of the view that the media needs to contribute towards the building of a new society and be accountable for its actions ....'' and “It is our responsibility further, as we set the agenda for change that we dominate the battle of ideas and that our voice is consistently heard and that it is above the rest.''
The views of the editors are not alone. Civil society organisations have supported their objections, among them the powerful and independent Law Society of South Africa which issued a considered statement on 13 August, saying that the Bill and the tribunal were “constitutionally suspect”.
It added that each had the potential seriously to erode transparency, accountability by public officials and the public's right of access to information and media freedom and the fact that the tribunal would be accountable to parliament was “cold comfort'” because “ultimately what this would amount to was government oversight over the media, which could not be countenanced in a democratic state.”
MISA-SA has noted that Chairman Cecil Burgess of the Parliamentary Ad Hoc committee dealing with objections has admitted that the Bill has some “bad qualities'”. In light of that the appropriate step by Burgess is to withdraw the Bill and get rid of the “bad qualities”.
And the ANC is well-advised to drop its plan for a tribunal and a return to apartheid-style attempts to restrict and control the media be stopped. //End//
The Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) is a regional membership–based non–government organization working for free, independent, pluralistic, sustainable media environment. MISA's memberships are based in 11 of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries. Officially launched in September 1992, MISA focuses primarily on the need to promote free, independent and pluralistic media , as envisaged in the 1991 Windhoek Declaration.