South Africa: Secrecy Bill Puts Free Expression at Risk

Washington

The International Partnership on Freedom of Expression in South Africa, a delegation of regional and international rights groups, raised their opposition to a proposed secrecy bill and threats of state regulation of the press during a joint mission to South Africa from Sept. 8-14. The Partnership met with stakeholders from the media industry, the ANC and opposition parties, and civil society to discuss the proposed Protection of State Information Bill and media regulation developments.

“South Africa has been a role model for transitional democracies, and it now faces critical choices that will shape its media and the public’s right to freedom of expression,” said Courtney C. Radsch, senior program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House.

The mission welcomes the thorough process of developing and revising legislation and mechanisms that seek to improve public access to information, but was concerned about a number of issues:

Protection of State Information Bill (a.k.a The Secrecy Bill)

The mission notes government assurances that this bill is not aimed at curbing the media, but rather to safeguard legitimate national security interests, and recognizes there have been several improvements in the various drafts of the bill. However, we remain deeply concerned about:

  • Harsh prison sentences that will ensnare innocent third parties who may come into possession of classified information like journalists and human rights defenders as well as the general public
  • Re-introduction of minimum sentences lessening judicial independence and discretion in adjudicating matters
  • The reduction of protections for whistleblowers that are guaranteed in various South African laws

“In order to present South Africans with a well-defined mechanism for the classification of information related to national security, it’s crucial that the law provide for protection for whistle blowers acting in the public interest and that there be consistency across South African laws,” said Henry Maina, Director,  ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa.

The mission supports the need to repeal the 1982 Apartheid-era Protection of Information Act and replace the 1996 Minimum Information Security Standards. Certain aspects of the proposed bill appear to be against the spirit of the Constitution, if not the letter, as well as the Promotion of Access to Information Act. This act was the first comprehensive right to information law on the continent.

In addition, the lack of public interest protection in the draft bill jeopardizes freedom of expression and the media’s role as watchdog.

Media Regulation

The mission supports proposals from the media industry to address concerns about the management of complaints against newspapers. However, we strongly oppose the imposition of statutory regulations on print media and journalists, and urge the government to drop its proposal to create a Media Appeals Tribunal. Such a tribunal would damage South Africa’s hard-won reputation as a leader in press freedom on the continent.

“As a leading member of the African Union, we urge the South African government to adhere to the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, which affirms that self-regulation is the best form of promoting high standards in the media,” said Zoe Titus, Executive Director of the Media Institute of  Southern Africa.

A free, independent, diverse and economically viable media is a critical pillar of a functioning democracy. The mission hopes that government and media stakeholders will continue their dialogue with a view towards creating an environment where independent and diverse media can flourish.

The Partnership was led by Freedom House and included representatives from ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). This mission was convened because of on-going concerns about threats to media independence and the free flow of information. The mission will release a more comprehensive report on our findings and recommendations in October.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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