By Butjwana Seokoma
Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, reminded us in 1994 that: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.” 16 years into democracy, opposition parties, civil society, activists and other stakeholders are facing new realities associated with our democracy – the proposed Protection of Information Bill and Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT).
The Alternative Information Development Centre (AIDC) has criticised the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) for tabling plans to censor and punish the media for reporting on corruption, when they are unable to maintain organisational discipline.
The AIDC is of the view that instead of striving to extend freedoms and access to information to all South Africans, the ANC-led government is targeting a series of freedoms that will further curtail media freedom.
“The ‘people shall not govern’ if they are not informed and cannot express their views. There can be no meaningful development or service delivery responsive to the needs of the people without the freedom of expression and information,” states the AIDC.
Contrary to the ANC’s claim that the idea of the statutory MAT will strengthen media accountability, there is a feeling that it will constitute a step towards official media censorship. South Africa already has a self regulatory body in the form of a Press Ombudsman to oversee complaints of violations of the media code of conduct adopted by the Press Council.
In a recent press statement, 19 civil society organisations (CSOs) called on government to caution relevant authorities against misuse of the power of arrest against those who exercise democratic dissent and to also withdraw the Bill in its present form as it is severely obstructive of people’s right to information. They also want government to take adequate measures to ensure that the right to express freely is protected from encroachments.
Apart from promoting censorship, activists fear that the proposed Bill and the MAT could also be used to target citizens in the long run. Speaking during the Mail&Guardian Critical Thinking Forum in Johannesburg, Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of journalism and media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, warned that people and even CSOs will no longer feel free to write news stories denouncing corrupt officials.
“The minute you give that power to the state or government to make those decisions, it will in the long run have the potential to be used, not only against journalists, but also against other citizens,” warned Harber.
Harber’s view is somehow reiterated by former University of Cape Town chancellor, Dr Mamphele Ramphele, who warned that if enacted, the Protection of Information Bill could well be used to make the society less open and less accountable. Speaking at the recent launch of the Open Society Foundation’s Open Society Monitoring Index, Mamphele maintained that, “Citizens could be deprived of information and, ultimately, freedom of expression would be inhibited, if not choked altogether, for fear of the punitive measures the Bill contains.”
Botswana and Zimbabwe
In Botswana, government introduced the controversial Media Practitioners Act. According to CSOs the Act’s right to reply clause threatens the independence of the media in that country. Under the Act, media practitioners are required to register and accredit with the Media Council and allows for stringent fines and imprisonment’ of journalists.
In Zimbabwe, the imprisonment of journalists and human rights activists after the introduction of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act tells a story of a country with no media freedom. Despite a constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of the press, the country had deported many foreign journalists.
We have been reliably informed that journalists are now forced to address President Robert Mugabe as: Head of State and Government, the commander-in-chief of the Zimbabwe defence forces and first secretary of ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe, when writing news.
Outside our country, the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, publishers and journalists, has come to the defence of media freedom in South Africa. In an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, the IPI calls on the country to halt the establishment of a mooted MAT and withdraw or amend the Protection of Information Bill.
IPI interim director, Alison Bethel-McKenzie, argues that, “…any Media Appeals Tribunal will not be independent. If the MAT is appointed by parliament, it will face an inherent conflict of interest that will skew its rulings in favour of public and party officials and essentially amount to government oversight of the media – which is unacceptable.”
In conclusion, Reporters Without Borders’ Worldwide Press Freedom Index ranked South Africa in 26th position in 2002 of the countries said to have ‘genuine press freedom’. South Africa was ranked 33rd in 2009, an indication that the country risks reversing the gains it made since the inception of democracy in terms of media freedom.
Butjwana Seokoma is information coordinator at SANGONeT. – From NGOpulse