There's been a plethora of media freedom and access to information events in Cape Town over the last week, and protests and pleas. Because, or perhaps despite them, South Africa's Protection of Information bill has been postponed from becoming law. But what of the proposed media appeals tribunal?
It’s a busy time in Cape Town for media activists and people concerned with freedom of expression, a free media and access to information. Over the weekend the Pan African Conference on Access to Information (Pacai) and the Highway Africa Conference were held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. The former is the result of a partnership between various organisations including Unesco and the African Union Commission, and culminated in the Africa Information and Media Summit (Aims), on Monday 19 September, a date which marks the 20th anniversary of the historic Windhoek Declaration, which gave rise to World Press Freedom Day. Aims saw the adoption of the African Platform for Access to Information (Apai), a declaration which calls for the free access to information across the African continent, and calls on governments, the media and civil society to all play their part in promoting access to information.
On Saturday 17 August the Right2Know campaign held a large march to the SA Parliament in Cape Town to protest the Protection of State Information Bill. This bill has been widely criticised, mainly for its exclusion of a public-interest defence clause and the manner in which it criminalises the disclosure of classified information, meaning that journalists or whistleblowers could face up to 25 years in prison for exposing certain types of government corruption. The Right2Know campaign has been one of the loudest voices of protest against the bill. Its well-supported march on Saturday concluded a busy week of activities organised by the campaign. One such event was the Great Debate, hosted by University of Cape Town students, on Thursday 15 September.
This debate, though interesting, heated, and, at some points, really bizarre, offered all of the usual arguments that we have grown used to over the last year. Journalist Martin Welz kicked things off by recalling the manner in which the SA state clamped down on access to state information during the apartheid era, but claimed that this was to be expected at the time. The apartheid government was at war, and at war with its own population, so it was natural that the government would be secretive about its workings, said Welz. But what is the ruling ANC’s excuse, he asked? Why introduce a secrecy law with no public-interest defence when the state is not at war with anyone? “The answer is, in order to hide corruption and non-delivery. That is the prime motive for what we are looking at now”, said Welz.
Media law expert Dario Milo, complained that the current law, although an improvement on previous drafts, is still fundamentally flawed because the implications of the enactment of the bill are a chilling effect of stifling media freedom and freedom of expression. However, another panellist, Dennis Dlomo, special advisor to Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele (the ministry that has been driving the bill), provided most of the entertainment. The chair of the debate, Judge Denis Davis, asked Dlomo: “I put it to you, that if this bill was law, we would not have known about the arms deal [South Africa's massive, and apparently massively corrupt, purchase of military weapons].” This question went largely unanswered, and throughout the debate Dlomo was mostly defensive. Dlomo spouted the usual arguments for the defence of the bill: that it can’t be used to hide corruption (though civil society and journalists argue that it can), and that South Africa has an access to information law which can be used to get hold of information (even though the implementation of the Promotion of Access to Information Act leaves so much to be desired that Welz called this law a “euphemism”).
In seeming desperation, Dlomo resorted to narrating the biblical story of creation to the audience, and talked about Adam and Eve for a bit. Later, he was quoting lyrics from a Ray Charles song. I’d really like to tell you that he did this for a reason, or used these episodes as some sort of clever metaphorical twist of public-speaking strategy in order land a punchy point. But he didn’t and the audience was first confused, and then simply amused. Only he knew what he meant. But, to be fair, Dlomo was outnumbered four to one on the panel, and has to be commended for being brave enough to roll with the number of heavy punches that were doled out to him during the debate.
Another worrying episode took place on Friday when the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications announced that it will be hosting a two-day meeting from 22 to 23 September on media diversity and transformation. This caused an immediate uproar. Firstly, the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) didn’t crack an invitation. Both Sanef and the Press Council have decided not to attend the meeting. Secondly, media-industry practitioners pointed out that the Portfolio Committee was allowing participants only four working days to prepare for discussions. And third, the parliamentary briefing document released prior to the event is a confused piece of writing which does little to conceal the government’s real motivation for the meeting. The introductory second paragraph of the document is dedicated to describing arguments seemingly in favour of an “independent appeal mechanism” for the media. After reminding us of that we face “continuous shabby journalism”, and “the inadequate powers of the Press Ombudsman”, the final sentence of this paragraph sums things up arbitrarily: “The focus of this initial Parliamentary [meeting] is on the question of media diversity and transformation”.
What we can read from this is that the parliamentary committee wants to talk about a media appeals tribunal, but under the politically correct guise of transformation. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious questions surrounding the lack of transformation and diversity within the South African press. That the parliamentary committee wishes to tackle the issues of the ownership structure of the media, skills development, gender challenges in the media and media diversity, among others, is good news. But it’s concerning that these discussions are due to begin with the ever-ominous threat of a media appeals tribunal infiltrating what otherwise is a very necessary and potentially beneficial set of talks.
Wits academic and Mail & Guardian ombud, Franz Krüger, spoke at Right2Know's Johannesburg march in August and interrogated how the ANC too often superficially uses the transformation agenda as a thin veil to front other agendas. The parliamentary meeting on media transformation appears to be more of the same then. Although the Portfolio Committee will deny it, this meeting seems to apply the transformation agenda as a cover for what it really wants to talk about: a media appeals tribunal. Let’s hope this is not the case.
The African Platform on Access to Information was launched on Monday afternoon, and among other things, calls for the Unesco General Council to declare 28 September as World Access to Information day. About 24 hours after this declaration was ratified at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, just a short distance down the road, the Protection of State Information bill was to be presented to the South African national assembly in Parliament. For the time being that has been postponed, but only time will tell whether it will become law, and in what form. FAM
The text of this article by Free African Media is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 South Africa License. Note that this does not include photographs or images, which may be encumbered by copyright. For more information, see our reuse page.