It’s been easy to take freedom of the press for granted lately; we haven’t had to sacrifice anything to defend it.

JESSICA SMIT

It’s been easy to take freedom of the press for granted lately; we haven’t had to sacrifice anything to defend it.

Now media freedom is under attack. Or is it?

Everywhere you look and listen these days, debates are raging about the Protection of Information Bill and what it is going to mean for our society.

So, Perdeby decided to go and find out exactly what the bill, which is pitting every major news outlet against the government, is aiming to do and why is has become such a heated topic among South Africans.

What is the Protection of Information Bill?

Basically, it is a 28-page piece of draft legislation that will be put forward for parliament to vote on. It mainly aims to regulate the government’s power to classify information, regulate the way information is classified and places severe penalties on the incorrect use of classified information

In a bit more detail, it outlines three categories in which information can be classified by ministers of the various government departments. These are “confidential”, “secret” and “top secret”. The bill also stipulates guidelines for the classification or declassification of information.

So, what’s right with it?

What’s good about the bill is that it replaces the old Protection of Information Bill of 1982, which is old Apartheid-era legislation that has a few dubious provisions. Measures to regulate the classification of information are also definitely necessary. And perhaps the regulatory measures in place for the media does need to be put under some sort of review, since there have been some harmful mistakes made in the past. As President Jacob Zuma said, “Media houses need to be regulated as they tend to go overboard sometimes.”

What’s wrong with it?

It lists several criminal offences related to the disclosure of classified information, but it doesn’t provide for the defense of public interest. This means that journalists wouldn’t be able to use any information about, say, corruption, if it has been classified. And if they did, they could be jailed.

Also, the bill states that a document could be classified as “confidential” if it is “sensitive information, the unlawful disclosure of which may be harmful to the security or national interest of the Republic or could prejudice the Republic in its international relations”. The use of words such as “may” and “could” seems a bit problematic, as can the term “national interest”, which has been criticised for being too vague. As Ayesha Kajee, the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute points out, the bill should rather be focussed on the national security. She says the important thing is “what affects the safety of South African citizens and what affects the safety of South African borders”. And, if a member of the public requests the declassification of a document, the request for a review is directed to the same person who decides to classify information, the minister of a certain institution. Sedge Motau, the DA shadow Minister of Energy and also a former journalist, explains the possible implications:

“When a corrupt official who has the power as a head of an institution to classify information, all they have to do is to quickly classify it and they can go merrily ahead with whatever it is they are doing.”

The major point of contention then is that the bill, as it stands, provides that practically any information can be classified as confidential. This inhibits not only press freedom, but freedom of access to information and freedom of speech.

Who’s for it?

President Jacob Zuma

Julius Malema – leader of the ANC Youth League

Jackson Mthembu – ANC Spokesperson

General Siphiwe Nyanda – Minister of Communication

Dr Blade Nzimande – Minister of Higher Education and Secretary-General of the South African Communist Party.

Who’s against it?

Tokyo Sexwale – Minister of Human Settlements

Dr Mamphela Ramphele – South African academic, businesswoman and medical doctor

Ronnie Kasrils – former Minister of Intelligence

Helen Zille – DA leader

Zwelenzima Vavi – Secretary-General of Cosatu

What impact could it have?

A list of key stories in South African newspapers was set before a panel of experts to judge whether these stories would have been published if the Protection of Information Bill was voted into law. The panel consisted of experts from the SA Law Society, the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), media monitoring groups and the heads of journalism at Rhodes and the University of Witwatersrand. They found that 16 out of the 18 stories would never have been made public. This includes “Jackie Selebi’s shady Kebble links” – Selebi may still have been our police commissioner today.

What do students think?

Chairperson of Joso, the student journalism society at Tuks, Natashia Hudson says, “In a way I can understand where the ideas behind the bill might be coming from. However, I doubt the motives of the bill and if my fears are correct, then I see it as a threat to journalism.” And she adds, “Maybe the Ombudsman system can be improved – but public interest, when it comes to revealing corruption, should be held in extremely high regard.”

Martin Patrick Kandolo who is currently in his third year of a law degree doesn’t believe that the bill should be passed. “I believe state officials are there for the population. Therefore matters regarding the state don’t regard the officials only – the population has a right to know. The media also should have the full right to freedom of expression.”

Another third year Law student, Dineo Hlapane says, “I do see more bad than good with the bill – it could allow them to push things under the carpet. Things like tender fraud could just be pushed under the carpet. I don’t think the bill is constitutional, to some extent, and maybe it needs to be tweaked.”

It’s not difficult to see why this bill is such a hot topic of conversation, since it affects us all. And as with most things, the Protection of Information Bill can be seen as both a good and a bad thing depending on how you look at it or listen to. The question is can the bill be passed when its constitutional validity is being questioned? Should it be amended first? Or perhaps the Press Ombudsman should be given more power? Ultimately, the important thing is that we keep talking about it, and considering how it will affect us all.

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