Media restrictions proposed with the stated intention of protecting the public good are causes for “serious concerns,” the Southern African Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) has commented. Warning that the proposed law is so broad that it threatens the free press, the bishops called for its complete redrafting.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has backed a bill which would punish reporters for “irresponsible and misleading reporting.” It defended the proposal as necessary to protect the national interest.
The proposed law defines “national interest” to include “all matters relating to the advancement of public good,” the Christian Science Monitor reports. It also protects the trade secrets of the state including “profits, losses or expenditures of any person.”
Exposure of such secrets is punishable by jail terms of three to five years.
“In whatever we do, there is no interest on the part of the ANC to limit the freedom that all of us enjoy, including the press,” commented ANC chief spokesman Jackson Mthembu, claiming the media reaction was out of step with “ordinary people.”
According to the Monitor, South Africa President Jacob Zuma in his weekly letter to ANC members said that the media has “put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian.”
“We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian?”
In a Tuesday statement from the SACBC, conference spokesman Cardinal Wilfrid Napier noted “serious concerns about the wisdom and the constitutionality of the Protection of Information Bill” and also of the creation of a Media Appeals Tribunal.
Aligning itself with “numerous” civil society groups and constitutional experts, the SACBC said the bill threatens the right to receive and impart information, the right to a free press and media and the right of access to information held by the state.
“Furthermore, we believe that the Bill violates the spirit of openness and accountability that is so necessary to underpin the Constitution’s provisions on good governance, essential for a healthy democracy,” Cardinal Wilfrid explained.
Among the bishops’ concerns are that unaccountable officials may classify almost any information as secret and that the definitions of national interest and national security are “so broad” they could be used to keep secret what ought to be accessible to the public.
They also charged that there is “practically no right of appeal” because any appeal would be “processed by the very people who made the original ruling.” According to the bishops, there is already an effective media ombudsman and there is merit in strengthening media self-regulation.
“We certainly do not want government to take us back to the oppressive practices of yesteryear, against which our common struggle was launched,” the SACBC commented, alluding to press restrictions under apartheid.
Acknowledging the necessity of some restriction of information, they voiced “grave misgivings” about the bill’s implementation.
“We, therefore, strongly urge government to withdraw the bill for complete redrafting to ensure … the openness and transparency required by the Constitution,” their statement concluded.
Karin Karlekar, managing editor of the Freedom of the Press report for the New York-based think tank Freedom House, told the Christian Science Monitor that the government’s proposal is “part of a broader trend” in the country and is “very worrying.”
The think tank’s annual report has downgraded South Africa to “partly free” for reasons including increasing restrictions on media and harsher rhetoric toward journalists by high-ranking government officials.