Statement of the COSATU Central Executive Committee, 23-25 August 2010

by Aug 26, 2010All Articles

23-25 August 2010

Protection of Information Bill

COSATU generally accepts that apartheid security legislation should be replaced, and would accept that safeguards are needed to protect specific categories of information (provided they are very narrowly defined) for the purposes of protection of safety and security.

We accept that there is a need to address the problem of “information peddling”, considering COSATU’s own experience with the “Browse Mole Report”.

The federation however cannot support this bill and has made written and oral submissions to the Ad Hoc Committee considering the Bill in Parliament. Our concerns include:

1.      The Bill covers a far too broad range of information that can be classified on the grounds that it is considered to affect the “national interest”, which is widely defined to include such problematic elements as:
•Matters relating to the advancement of the public good
•Matters relating to the protection and preservation of anything owned or maintained by the State
•Pursuit of … economic growth, free trade, a stable monetary system and sound international relations.
•Significant political and economic relations with international organisations and foreign governments.

This is further expanded to include “commercial information” that would include:
•Information whose disclosure would “prejudice” commercial, business, financial or industrial interests causing such effects as:
a.      Financial loss or competitive or reputational injury
b.      Disclosure of trade secrets, confidential processes, operations, styles of work, source of income, profits, losses or expenditures

2.      Classification of information extends beyond what us strictly necessary for the purposes of safety and security, including information, which would affect “commercial, business, financial or industrial interests…. or cause financial loss or competitive or reputational injury”. A key concern relates to the potential these provisions create to suppress information on corruption and irregularities.
3.      A person wanting access to classified information must apply to the same HOD who classified the information to declassify it.  This raises concerns about conflict of interest.  Appeals against the HOD would have to be lodged with the Ministry under which s/he falls.
4.      Additional problematic responsibilities may be imposed on trade union representatives who would be obliged to report a worker (or return classified information) where such a worker seeks advice about possible irregularities affecting a classified matter. This could make whistle blowing far more dangerous.

The CEC agreed that the bill must be withdrawn and completely reconstituted.

ANC NGC Media Paper

The CEC considered an ANC NGC discussion paper – “Media transformation, ownership and diversity”. It was agreed that there are serious problems with the South African media. One of the biggest is the concentration of ownership within the print media, around 95% of which is owned by just three big, wealthy companies – Independent Newspapers, Avusa and Naspers, which all reflect the outlook and prejudices of the capitalist class that own them – pro-big business, the ‘free market’ and private enterprise.

The CEC agreed with the ANC paper “there can be no real media freedom without diversity in ownership… The Media is a contested terrain and therefore not neutral, but reflects the ideological battles and power relations based on race, class and gender in our society. It cannot claim that its role is merely to reflect interests – rather it helps to shape those interests.”

The meeting also endorsed the ANC view that “media freedom… is a cornerstone for any democracy to flourish. All of us have a responsibility to defend media freedom and editorial independence from any form of compulsion, whether it be political economic or commercial… Freedom of expression is in the self-interest of all those who believe in democracy.”

There are however problems with how to deal with cases where the media goes beyond merely exercising their constitutional right to express a view, but resorts to using lies, defamation, distortion, selective reporting, unsubstantiated ‘facts’ from anonymous ‘sources’, deliberate omission of relevant facts, etc.

The present system for dealing with complaints against such abuses are the Press Council of South Africa, the Press Ombudsman and the Press Appeals Panel, which, in their own words, is “a self-regulatory mechanism set up by the print media.” They have not been effective in combating the problem, because they are underfunded, understaffed and too closely linked to the media industry.

There is therefore a case for looking at alternative bodies to provide the public with ways to defend themselves against unfair or inaccurate reporting. The proposed Media Appeals Tribunal is one such proposal, but the CEC agreed that it could not be supported until it was much clearer how it would be constituted. Studies should be conducted into how the problem is dealt with in other countries, and how the independence of such bodies can be safeguarded.

COSATU would oppose any tribunal that could be used to intimidate the media into not exposing crime, corruption, incompetence or waste of public money. On the contrary that is what the media should be encouraged to do.

SABC

The CEC discussed the state of affairs at the SABC, which has moved from bad to worse. The Chair of the SABC, Dr. Ben Ngubane, and GCEO, Solly Mokoetle have persistently undermined the SABC Board and ignored and overturned its decisions. Since May 2010 board meetings have been constantly cancelled leading to a situation where Board members have declared a “vote of no confidence” in the Chair.

COSATU participated in a very active and transparent public nomination process for the new Board, which in general provided us with a competent set of Board members with the requisite integrity and skills to hold the confidence of civil society.

After eight months in office, however, the Board has not been able to draft a critical turn-around strategy for the corporation. The lack of board meetings have meant none of the policy issues addressed to the SABC by the independent production sector – or the unions – have been addressed.

Without a functioning Board, the public will continue to see the unabated strategy of imported shows on their screens, the independent production sector will continue to shrink alongside SABC’s income, the morale of staff at the SABC will continue to drop, and we will see the return of the SABC being used for factional political purposes, as already reflected in the blatantly biased coverage of the public service strike, and the way it reports the issues around the SABC board itself.

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