Campaign Grows Against SA Information Bill

13 August 2010

Critics of a proposed South African law on  access to information are ramping up their campaign as parliamentary consideration is slightly delayed.

More than 100 national and international groups have signed on to a letter being circulated in protest of the bill proposed by the ruling African National Congress. Progress on the initiative, and the text, is reported on the South Africa History Archive website.

Clause by clause committee deliberations on the bill, scheduled for Aug.10-12, were postponed pending a presentation by the Minister of State Security scheduled for Aug.13, but at the last minute  he dealayed his appearance. He indicatd that he wanted to consider more thoroughly all the public submissions.

Media Tribunal Controversy

Adding fuel to the fire was the reinvigoration of a separate proposal by ANC leaders that would create a media tribunal, with powers to rule on media content and impose penalties on journalists.  It will be considered in September at the ANC’s policymaking conference. Jacob Zuma backed the ANC’s plans for media controls, as reported in Dispatch Online.

In a declaration published in all main Sunday newspapers, the South African National Editors Forum Aug. 8 said the proposed restrictions threaten free expression that has been the “lifeblood” of the country’s democracy since the end of apartheid era rule in 1994, according to an Associated Press summary.

A top ANC official on Aug. 10 responded to the criticisms, saying the recently proposed Media Appeals Tribunal would enhance accountability and improve reporting, according to a Reuters story. “Are we vindictive? Definitely no, but we are saying the freedom that all of us enjoy that emanates from our constitution should be enjoyed by all of us,” the ANC’s national spokesman Jackson Mthembu told journalists and editors at a conference.

A wrap-up of the media tribunal situation and its background was prepared by Jackie Bischof for, or jocoza, run by the Journalism Programme of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Access to Information Law Opposed

Meawhile, the proposed access to information legislation has not advanced beyond the hearings stage in Parliament.  Among other things, the bill would also prevent disclosure of information deemed to be in the “national interest.” (See previous report.)

Leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance Helen Zille said the bill would make it harder for journalists to investigate government. “If passed, the Protection of Information Bill will criminalize investigative journalism,” said Zille, a former reporter. One report, by Gaye Davis, on her remarks appeared in the Pretoria News. She also pledged a legal challenge to its constitutionality.

South African activists are gathering signatures for “a comprehensive civil society statement to protest the draconian Protection of Information Bill in South Africa.” Hopolang Selebalo at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is coordinating the collection of signatures

Among the many criticisms of the bill was a speech by Mamphela Ramphele, a South African academic, businesswoman and medical doctor who was an anti-apartheid activist, reprinted in The Mail & Guardian Aug. 12.

In a recent editorial, one activist reacted to a statement by the government’s top FOI official, the Chief State Law Adviser.  The rebuttal came from Gabriella Razzano, Support Officer, Freedom of Information Programme, South African History Archive (SAHA).

Another statement on the access to information proposal is by the Freedom of Expression Institute.

The International Press Institute recently weighed in with a letter on both proposals.

Extensive information on the bill and the hearings is available on the Parliamentary Monitoring Group website.

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