On the 22nd of November the S. African parliament passed a sweeping law that severely restricts the press freedoms in a country that has fought long and hard against apartheid and for their freedoms. The œProtection Of Information bill, if passed into law, would effectively restrict all reporters from gaining access to information deemed sensitive by government officials. And, if a reporter, journalist, or citizen does get any kind of information, or documents deemed classified, they must submit a request for permission or declassification of the document or information.
Essentially what this bill does is challenge their constitutional rights to gain access to information that is œheld by the state, or œby another person, that could be needed to protect the rights of their citizens. The bill outlines the methods for classification, and even the methods of getting the classification removed, but what the bill doesn’t say is what type of information could be restricted.
This bill, which passed their lower house, is due to appear in their National Council of Provinces soon, and is expected to pass there also. But, journalists, and citizens alike aren’t taking this sitting down…or lightly. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu, called the proposed law an Insult to the African Nation, and Nelson Mandela’s office issued a rather strongly worded statement expressing his concern surrounding the law. The Freedom House, an American civil liberties organization, downgraded the African nation from œFree, to œPartially Free.
This bill goes along with another bill that will establish a œMedia Appeals Tribunal establishes harsh punishments on reporters that make mistakes that are harmful. But, both bills have been in consideration for several years, only coming to the floor for a vote when the love/hate relationship between their politicians and media becomes sticky. And, with the recent fiasco surrounding President Jacob Zuma, the politicians thought they would bring out this issue and dust it off.
Many in the media, in S. Africa and elsewhere, are calling these manoeuvrings œDraconian, and a œthrowback to Apartheid days, and we can see why. The law will allow their government officials to declare any information they wish as classified without any kind of explanation as to why. Journalists are saying that the law would prevent them from doing any kind of investigative reporting, on anything, without fear of reprisal. Any journalist reporting anything that could potentially be classified, including possible illegal activities, could face up to 25 years in prison.
The Senior Editor of the weekly publication Mail and Guardian, Nic Dawes, said that œjournalists will be required to choose between what their vocation requires them to do on one hand, or avoiding the very real possibility of jail sentences of up to 25 years. It’s disappointing that their Parliament would ignore the public cries of outrage. Theirs is a Democratic society, and the lack of concern for the voters in this matter is reminiscent of American politics. Where often, the one with the most money wins the day.