Just Jules

Echoes of Apartheid: the ANC’s Protection of Information Bill

Posted in Africa, Journalism by Jules the journo on August 18, 2010

While journalists in the UK welcome the news that the government is reviewing and updating privacy laws, those in Africa are fighting those in power for their right to report.

Disappointingly, today’s Media Show on Radio 4 didn’t mention the latest cog that’s turning in the very big machine that is the struggle for freedom of expression in Africa, which is already a major issue for places like Zimbabwe and other sub-saharan countries.

Right now in South Africa, journalists are petitioning against the ANC’s plans to create a media tribunal to regulate their work. New laws would make it illegal – and punishable by up to 25 years in jail – to leak or publish information considered classified by the government. Jacob Zuma says members of the media are not elected so “need to be governed themselves because at times they go overboard on the rights.”

(No doubt recent media attention to his own private life has helped fuel this condemnation of journalists who are surely just doing their job – i.e. researching and reporting the truth).

The President of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) criticises the proposed Protection of Information Bill as “deplorable and a travesty to freedom of the press, freedom of expression and the right of the people to access government information.”

Burundi, a hotbed of press censorship, is an example of just how oppressive these kinds of laws can become. Dozens of independent journalists have been detained or threatened over their work in recent years.

The editor of Burundi’s Netpress news agency, Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, has been repeatedly arrested and even tried and acquitted of criminal “defamation” – read Richard Wilson’s article.

According to one website Burundian authorities are using a law that’s only applicable in wartime to prosecute Kavumbagu. Again the IFJ, the Federation of African Journalists, and the Eastern Africa Journalists Association are all calling on the Burundian Government to drop the charges and release him immediately.

The IFJ is also calling for “immediate and unconditional release of Thierry Ndayishimiye,” another journalist in Burundu who’s recently been arrested and charged with “defamation” over an article alleging corruption within the state energy authority.

Surely such a high level anxiety to keep specific information out of the reach of journalists  – and potentially the eyes of the public – simply reflects a fear of people finding out the truth. Yes, governments might argue it’s not “in the public interest” for the media to have access to some of it and obviously there are times when that’s appropriate.

But places like S.A just can’t afford to return to these attitudes that hark back to the Apartheid years. That was when referring in print to those figures who fought for independence like Nelson Mandela and Zuma himself was seen as a threat to national security. How very ironic.

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