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Politicians pitted against journalists in new battle over media freedom

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By Iqbal Jassat – Chairman, Media Review Network

A new storm over media freedoms is brewing in South Africa. It seems that until the 2010 soccer World Cup was underway, all eyes were fixed on the spectacle and the excitement it generated amongst the population. Now that it is over and acknowledged as a resounding success, much to the dismay of numerous doomsayers who included the likes of Hussein Solomon, the public debate has shifted to familiar territory.

This involves the ANC-led government and the 4th Estate. To the uninitiated it may not be clear what the debate entails. Media reports and radio talk shows are filled with angry voices belonging to journalists warning about an impending threat to media freedoms arising from politicians keen to impose censorship ala apartheid style.

Countering this view are voices such as those of Blade Nzimande of the Communist Party who has juxtapositioned startling media probes into corruption called “tenderpreneurs” with “mediapreneurship”. Nzimande, who also enjoys a senior cabinet position in government, explained that this trend involves journalists who are literally in the pockets of moneyed and powerful interests, accepting cash to write stories in favour of financial patrons and besmirching the opponents of their benefactors.

He cited the case of an Independent News & Media journalist Ashley Smith, who admitted that he was politically and financially corrupted to report in a particular manner. However in his enthusiasm to tag Smith as a mediapreneur, Nzimande may have overlooked the fact that the alleged briber was a high-ranking politician, none other than the former ANC Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool now on his way to represent South Africa as its ambassador in the United States!At the heart of the current debate are two significant developments: a new piece of legislature before parliament titled the Protection of Information Bill; and the disclosure by the ANC that a media tribunal, a system of state regulation is back on the agenda.

While the purpose of the bill is to replace apartheid-era secrets act with a democratic framework of information protection, a range of submissions warning of its draconian nature has raised serious concerns.

Congress of South African Trade Unions [COSATU] has argued that the bill’s ambit is too wide and includes classification of information associated with commercial contracts entered into by government, state-owned enterprise and state entities. “We come from a past that upheld secrecy, a mechanism for enforcing serious human rights violation and general oppression”. In it’s submission, the South African National Editors’ Forum acknowledges that certain types of information relation to national security must be protected but has warned that framing legislation governing this aspect unless narrowed down will obstruct constitutional values. The Print Media Association has bluntly cautioned that the bill if not amended, heralds an era of thought control. “A journalist or editor who is prosecuted under any of the offences cannot argue that the information is of public benefit, for example, in that it exposes wrongdoing, incompetence, criminality or hypocrisy”. Legal minds Okyerebea Ampofo-Anti and Dario Milo have also found the bill to pose a serious threat to media freedom if passed in its current form. They point out that it would legislate a number of criminal offences, such as accessing, disclosing and continuing to possess classified information; communicating classified information that directly or indirectly benefits another state or directly or indirectly prejudices the republic; and publishing a “state security matter”, being any matter that is dealt with, by or relates to the functions of the various state security and intelligence agencies. The maximum penalties for these offences range from five to 25 years in jail. This they argue will inevitably create a chilling effect on the publication of matters of national interest! As a media advocacy group, the Media Review Network is equally concerned about the inherent threat to press freedom and the draconian consequences faced by scribes and fellow practitioners if found to have fallen foul of its over-arching reach. It is likely that if ANC politicians push this bill through parliament knowing full well that many media pundits suspect it to be part of an attempt to hide incompetence and corruption such as tenderpreneurship, it will be contested for its constitutional shortcomings.