South Africa's media tribunal: US ambassador weighs in on press freedom

The United States has joined those questioning proposed changes to South Africa's media laws, including a media tribunal and information bill that critics call 'draconian.'

By , Staff writer

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    US Ambassador Donald Gips addresses the Open Society Foundation at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa on Wednesday. Ambassador Gips called for South Africa's government and journalists to work together amid growing tensions over a proposed media tribunal and information bill that could jail reporters for publishing information that officials want kept secret.
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The US Ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, waded into the rough waters of South Africa’s debate over media freedom, giving a speech on the need both for responsible reporting and for a media environment free of governmental interference.

Speaking at the South African Institute for International Affairs, a private think tank on the campus of Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, Ambassador Gips suggested that both the media industry and the South African government should find “common ground” in the search for solutions.

"I believe the challenge here is to balance that right of criticism with the need for media professionalism and standards for truthful and fair reporting,” Mr. Gips said. "The overturning of apartheid offered South Africans opportunities to come together to create a Constitution that is a model both in terms of citizen responsibility and for its protection of the freedoms so many fought to achieve. South Africa must not turn away from that history now. America still believes that a free press serves as the front line in the defence of democracy." (Read the speech here in its entirety.)

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STORY: In ANC bill, South African media see threat to press freedom

'Media Appeals Tribunal' and information bill

The US ambassador’s speech – which also touched on many other issues, such as bilateral relations between the US and South Africa, as well as education, health, and corruption – is just the latest sign of international concern over efforts by the ruling African National Congress over media freedom.

Press freedom advocates have slammed as "draconian" the ANC's moves to start a "Media Appeals Tribunal" that would impose legal penalties on reporting.

Gips also weighed in on a separate Protection of Information bill proposed by the South African government to give officials broader powers to classify documents and to severely punish whistleblowers within government who leak documents to the press. Media professionals and political analysts warn that such a bill, if passed, would effectively criminalize investigative journalism.

Irresponsible reporting?

ANC leaders argue that local news organizations often misstate or misreport the news events, and that current bodies set up to correct such mistakes, such as the independent press ombudsman, are inadequate. ANC leaders also complain about the press, by reporting constantly on scandals involving top government officials, often have the effect of defaming a person’s character, even if such stories end up being proved wrong.

“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,” said Jackson Mthembu, the ANC’s spokesman, at a press conference last week at the historic Liliesleaf Farm in Johannesburg. “There shouldn't be one group of people called the media who can rubbish you, who can defame you and you have no recourse.”

Joining the US ambassador in voicing concern is the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, a private group that represents journalists.

In a letter to the South African government, the CPJ wrote, “We call on you as the head of state and leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to ensure that such proposals are either amended in line with constitutional safeguards for freedom of the press and access to information, or withdrawn altogether in the interest of preserving the transparency, accountability, and democracy gained after apartheid.”

Will the ANC and the news media find common ground? Watch this space to find out.

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