Free speech campaigners and opposition politicians have organized a series of nationwide protests against a raft of ‘anti-media’ laws being debated in South Africa’s parliament this month.
The opposition Democratic Alliance party (DA) has led marches on Parliament and the Constitutional Court, calling on the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to abandon plans to make journalists accountable to government-appointed appeals tribunals and to place the national broadcaster under greater government control.
Anger has also been growing over a proposed ‘secrecy’ bill, which would give the government powers to prevent the disclosure of any information considered harmful to ‘national interests’. The Protection of Information Bill goes so far as proposing that publishing details about corruption by government bodies or state-controlled companies would be punishable by up to 25 years in prison. DA leader Helen Ziulle has dubbed it the ‘Protection of Corruption Bill’.
Nic Dawes, editor of the Johannesburg-based Mail & Guardian, said the plans represented a ‘clear and present danger’ to press freedom and the media’s ability to hold the government to account: ‘It would draw a veil of secrecy across a huge swathe of state activity and would effectively criminalize both journalism and whistle-blowing.’
The bill, which is being considered for revision by a parliamentary ad hoc committee, would make it possible for government officials, and even junior employees in state firms, to classify documents ‘protected’. The ANC claims it will prevent irresponsible journalism. But journalists fear any such law would prevent them from reporting on corruption or cronyism.
The International Press Institute has described the proposed bill as ‘repressive’ and urged President Zuma to address concerns over press freedom. It points out that the country’s Press Council is an effective regulatory body, frequently ruling in favour of the ANC in disputes, and adds that if the proposed media appeal tribunals are appointed by the ANC-dominated parliament they will face an inherent conflict of interest.
The country already has robust laws and monitoring bodies in place – South Africa’s press regulations are almost identical to Britain’s.
Concern about the government’s intentions has grown following the ‘jackboot’ arrest of a leading investigative journalist who had broken a story about high-level corruption. The controversial arrest split the governing party, with the trade union arm calling for a public inquiry into the incident.
The two million-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions has condemned the proposals and threatened to ‘pull back’ support for the party in next year’s local elections.