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Monday, 12 December 2011
CPJ URGES SOUTH AFRICAN AUTHORITIES TO DROP SECRECY BILL
African authorities should heed widespread calls to drop a "secrecy
bill" that opponents say will criminalize whistle-blowing and stifle
investigative journalism, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
The Protection of State Information Bill, which makes possessing or
publishing anything the government deems "classified" an offense
punishable by up to 25 years in prison, was passed by the National Assembly last month
and now must be approved by the upper house of Parliament before President
Jacob Zuma can sign it into law.
During a fact-finding and advocacy mission to South Africa this week, CPJ
Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe, along with CPJ Deputy
Director Robert Mahoney, met with a broad spectrum
of journalists, editors, press freedom advocates, and civil society leaders
to discuss the bill. African
National Congress spokesman Jackson Mthembu told CPJ that the ANC believed
the bill was needed to replace apartheid-era law and safeguard state secrets, and denied that it
was a gag on the media. "There is no intention to curb media freedom
in this country," he told CPJ.
Mthembu also said that the press needed to strengthen self-regulation to
better balance an individual's constitutional right to dignity against the
media's right to publish. But journalists said that a proposed tribunal,
which would answer to parliament-where the ANC holds nearly two-thirds of
the seats-would be tantamount to state control.
The passing of the bill has galvanized opposition across South African
civil society. Last month, labor unions, a key ally of the ruling ANC, pledged to join a campaign against the
proposed legislation. Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela's foundation have both expressed opposition
to the bill. Other opponents have vowed to petition the Constitutional
Court to review the bill if it becomes law.
The bill's critics also say that a public interestdefense clause is vital
given the severity of the punishment that those convicted under the statute
could face. Such a clause would allow journalists to argue that disclosure
served the public's right to know and outweighed the state's right for
"We share the concerns of our colleagues in the South African media
that this proposed law will have a serious, chilling effect on journalists
and deprive the public of information that should be available in a
democracy," CPJ Chairman Rowe said. "This is undemocratic
legislation. At the very least, this type of bill should include a 'public
interest' clause to protect those who publish information in cases where
citizens' right to know trumps the authorities' desire for secrecy."
Many print journalists told CPJ they feared an ANC proposal to set up a
government-run Media Appeals Tribunal to examine
complaints against newspapers. The Press Council of South Africa currently
provides a self-regulatory mechanism for readers to address grievances
against newspapers that publish apologies and retractions if complaints
against them are upheld.
Mthembu said the government and the ANC were consulting with all sides in
the debate and believed that the bill would not violate the constitution.
"The president will not sign an unconstitutional bill," he told
CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to
safeguard press freedom worldwide.