Global news agencies uneasy over South Africa's press freedom

The Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg, and Agence France-Presse sent a letter to South African President Jacob Zuma to express concern about a proposed law that could limit press freedom in South Africa.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
South African President Jacob Zuma speaks during a press conference at South African Pavilion on Aug. 26, 2010 at the Shanghai Expo site in Shanghai.

Four of the world’s top syndicated news services have added their voice of concern over South Africa’s plan to create a media tribunal to punish inaccurate reporting, and to limit scrutiny to much of the government’s activities through a so-called "protection of information" bill.

In their letter, sent to President Jacob Zuma last week and made public this week, top editors from the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and Bloomberg wrote, “We fear the proposed law on protecting information could restrict the free flow of information, even though it stipulates it is not intended to allow officials to conceal information simply because its publication might be embarrassing.”

The bill that proposes stiff penalties of up to 25 years in prison would give a broad array of officials the ability to classify information, the editors added, noting, “We fear this could conflict with South Africa’s constitutional commitment to freedom of the press and other media.”

The editors also expressed concern about plans for a media appeals tribunal, which the editors said “would undermine the media’s independence if the tribunal were to answer to Parliament or any arm of government.”

Relations between South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), and the press have been on a downslide for years now, largely because of the tendency of newspapers to highlight corruption scandals tied to top government officials. But since August, they have taken a definite turn for the worse, when the ANC unveiled its plans to put two media bills before parliament in the next session.

Coming just weeks after the end of this summer’s successful World Cup – when South Africa and its government won plaudits for a job well done – the negative attention from these media bills have come as a hard shock.

Government officials have justified their media appeals tribunal in part because of their own personal experiences with media misreporting. In a panel discussion at Witwatersrand University, ANC leaders and media professionals seemed to talk past each other.

Jackson Mthembu, meeting with reporters at an ANC briefing held at the historic farm where Nelson Mandela was arrested for treason, said, “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. There shouldn't be one group of people called the media who can rubbish you, who can defame you and you have no recourse.”

Yet in this debate, there have been voices calling for “common ground.”

Clearly, South Africa’s media could afford to improve their professionalism, said Donald Gips, the US ambassador to South Africa, in a recent speech at the South African Institute for International Affairs.

“Having served in two White Houses, I know how members of government feel when leaders are attacked by the media, sometimes unfairly,” he said. But freedom of the press “serves as the front line in the defense of democracy,” Ambassador Gips added.

Read Gips's full speech here.

Since the initial flurry of reports, the ANC government has indicated that it may take another look at the media bills before submitting them to parliament.

Government spokesman Themba Maseko told reporters in mid-August that the ANC found foreign media reports about media bills “worrying” and this month told reporters the government is open to suggestions.

“Government, through the minister of state security, is considering the valuable submissions and representations made during the public hearings and is committed to accommodating the views expressed as far as practicable and reasonable," Mr. Maseko said.

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