The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) starts its series of public engagements around the Protection of State Information Bill this week. The Press Freedom Commission hearings are taking place right now. It’s going to be a challenging year. Glenda Daniels looks at the threats to the media and how the industry should be reacting…
We need both hysteria and sober strategies from the media about impending media freedoms being whittled away. Nothing has happened yet, but the signs are all there about the tough time ahead.
The ANC withdrew the Protection of State Information Bill (secrecy bill) at the eleventh hour, but stated at the time that it wanted the law passed before 2012. That deadline has passed, but the Bill is still in play. Also, in September, Parliament’s communications committee held an indaba on media transformation and diversity. These are two good concepts in and of themselves, but they are being used as the precursor for the dreaded Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), which means state control of the media.
Civil society’s voice against the so-called secrecy bill is loud and visible. The Right2Know’s (R2K) campaign arranged marches, petitions, mass rallies and candlelight vigils outside Parliament and the Constitutional Court. But journalists have been quiet. Yet both the passing of the secrecy bill and the imposition of a statutory MAT would directly affect how they work.
The reality is that the ANC believes the media has far too much freedom. The future looks uncertain: if the secrecy bill is enacted without a public interest defence, and if the MAT is implemented, there will be less transparency, less accountability, more sanitised stories and possibly lots of self-censorship among journalists.
Who wants to go to jail for being in possession of a classified document, for being a whistleblower exposing wrongdoing, or for publishing information in the public interest but which the ruling party does not want the public to know about? Why should we be happy to go to jail for what we believe in, especially when we thought all that was darkness and censorship was over when apartheid was defeated?
In the end, the ANC might just decrease the jail time stipulated in the secrecy bill – but any amount of jail time is unacceptable. We should prepare ourselves for the possibility of the MAT, which was, after all, a policy decision taken at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007. The idea, according to the ANC, is to complement the self-regulatory system. It would be a form of post-publication punishment, it would seem.
The media doesn’t appear to have a concrete strategy on how to deal with these threats. It needs to forge partnerships, particularly with the public. It’s going to have to convince sections of the public of its relevance and its role in democracy. And it has to link hands with civil society. An example of this is the very visible R2K campaign – a coalition with over 400 non-governmental organisations.
As journalists, to gain more credibility, we have to ensure our stories are fair, accurate and in the public interest. We must also include as many diverse voices in our papers as possible.
There is deep antipathy towards the media from some sectors. There is one view that the media is just profit-driven and interested in selling its producst, and that it doesn’t cover a variety of economic perspectives. This view pretends that the media has one ideological outlook. Others believe the media is just too negative.
We also need to forge partnerships with the rest of Africa – such as what happened in Cape Town in September at the Pan African Conference on Access to Information. World Access to Information Day was declared to be September 28. Now, every year, freedom of information will be celebrated.
Firstly, It is a pity that some in the ANC have not been able to accept the nature of democracy: with its constant contestations, twists and turns and tensions, there is never going to be a cosy joined-at-the-hip-in-bed relationship with the media.
Second, accepting tensions that come from leaks about corruption would then entail that the security state apparatus in the country does not overstep its boundaries. Its mandate does not include tapping or bugging journalists’ phones, nor to arrest them for no valid reason. The tensions and corruption in society are reflected in the press, not created as figments of imagination by journalists.
Third, the media needs to help government and the public or citizenry understand what happens in newsrooms and how the news production process works.
Last, journalists could become more visibly vigilant and concerned about their freedoms. Mostly, they appear disengaged about the media freedom space being whittled away, quite at odds to the ANC’s accusation of “hysteria” about their freedom. In all fairness, we did not heard much of this accusation last year.
This is no time to be complacent. We need to reflect, link up with others and take action to show we treasure the independence of the press and the freedoms we presently have.