South Africa moves ahead with bill to limit freedom of information
The ANC's parliamentary committee has opted to vote clause-by-clause on the Protection of Information bill, which many believe would criminalize investigative journalism. Will citizens' right to know be compromised?
Johannesburg, South Africa
By speeding up the vote on a controversial Protection of Information bill this week, South Africa’s ruling party may be close to dramatically restricting the rights of citizens to monitor the actions of their government officials.Skip to next paragraph
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As currently written, the “Protection of Information” bill would grant the government broad powers to classify documents for reasons ranging from national security to protection of state possessions: everything from top-secret weapons plans for the South African National Defense Forces to the allotments of elephant feed at the Johannesburg Zoo. The bill does specifically forbid the classification of documents that are merely embarrassing or that reveal incompetence, but it also authorizes prosecution of journalists found in possession of documents labeled as “secret,” and media groups argue that this effectively makes investigative journalism illegal.
“The governing party has decided to set aside its earlier willingness to negotiate with other parties and civil society and now seem determined to ram this through parliament,” says Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail and Guardian, a Johannesburg-based investigative weekly. “This bill will criminalize investigative journalism and civic activism.”
Initially proposed in early 2010, the Protection of Information bill and a separate plan to create a Media Appeals Tribunal to punish journalists for errors in reporting were both shelved after the controversy over the two bills led the ruling African National Congress to shelve them for further study and consultation. But after several meetings, the bill has been reintroduced in parliament barring virtually the same activities, and civic activists, media organizations, and even the ANC’s own coalition partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, have cried foul once more.
“As it stands, this bill will restrict media freedom,” said COSATU’s spokesman, Patrick Craven, in a statement. “It will also severely limit the ability of organisations like ours to hold government accountable or to support government in working for a better life for all. The bill will drive a wedge between the state and the people it is supposed to serve.”