Are there enough media freedom activists to take up the challenge of national security extremism? Two distinct but disparate trends are emerging on the media freedom landscape: more internet freedom, but more clampdowns on freedom of information and media freedom from governments.
Never mind Zimbabwe, Mexico and China: this is right on our doorsteps, in the ‘free’ world. Let us take three examples. In South Africa, the Protection of State Information Bill (dubbed the ‘Secrecy Bill’) has been passed back to Parliament, for a paltry two-day revision, rather than the overhaul it needs from progressive lawyers, to synchronise it with the Constitution. The two days have come and gone and we are still in the dark about the status of the bill. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Charter gets the vote of approval from the public, while the prime minister contemplates internet censorship. Then, United States soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, after spending more than 1 000 days in detention, was found guilty of many counts of espionage and theft for releasing to WikiLeaks military documents that revealed US war crimes and atrocities.
What are the common points? All these offences against media freedom and freedom of information take place in so-called ‘free’ countries, in democracies, although South Africa is the youngest kid on the block. And all these countries support media freedom and free access to information.
At the end of July, Manning was convicted of espionage, theft and several other charges for giving army secrets to WikiLeaks. He has been sentenced to 35 years in prison. The US government charged that by talking to the media, Manning was talking to “the enemy” – a common term from Stalinist Russia, used in China today, and in Zimbabwe when President Robert Mugabe refers to the UK, and it has also has crept into the ANC’s lexicon. Talking to “the enemy” is a treason charge, which carries the death penalty. Manning wasn’t found guilty of this charge.
Nonetheless, being found guilty on the other charges of espionage and theft is a serious blow to freedom of information, peace activism, media freedom and investigative journalism. The target is now journalists’ sources – or whistleblowers – in an obvious ‘shoot the messenger’ phenomenon. Reports of Manning’s treatment in detention suggest that he was tortured, including standing naked and sleep deprivation. It is a warning sign to all who wish for more transparency (which equals more democracy, surely?) in the ‘free world’. This country is supposedly the ‘leader of democracies’, or so we hear. It cares so much about freedom, democracy and humanity that it even carries out wars in the name of these ideals. The irony is obvious.
The outcome of this case signals a gloomy future indeed. So much for the great Barack Obama hope: for more democracy, more justice, more humanity and more freedom of information.
Let us now turn our gaze to another friend of democracy, the UK, where self-regulation of the press is close to being withdrawn. Even though Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t approve of whittling down media freedom, in a recent, inexplicable move he decided to censor citizens’ use of the internet to protect them from the harm of porn.
The press has suffered close scrutiny into its practices, called “outrageous” by some of its critics, since the 2011 phone hacking by News of the World journalists. This scandal resulted in an inquiry headed by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, in which he recommended an independent body free of journalists to replace self-regulation. It stunk of state intervention by implicit rather than explicit suggestion. When Cameron refused the proposal he was accused of dismissing more accountability for the press too quickly.
Then parliament’s three largest parties came up with the idea of the Royal Charter, hailed by some media freedom activists as dictatorship in disguise, a new accountability measure for the press that would make Mugabe and the Chinese gleeful. In July 2013, there was a national poll to see if Britons agreed with Royal Charter proposal. Most agreed that the self-regulation system should give way. Only 15% of people polled believed that the press should be self-regulated. What does this say about the values of people in one of the world’s oldest democracies, albeit one that is a constitutional monarchy? So, are we looking at clamping down and covering up becoming the order of the day in the UK? While the issue is not settled, as the newspaper industry has not bought into the Royal Charter, Cameron contemplates internet censorship.
Turning our gaze south, it’s an equally dismal picture. We wait with bated breath to see what will happen in the next round of the Secrecy Bill in parliament. Will Zuma sign the bill and take us back to the dastardly days of apartheid when the thought police controlled and spied on citizens, tapped activists phones and raided homes looking for threats to state security?
Our freedom of information activists, the Right2Know campaign, Cosatu, Sanef and some opposition parties have all vowed to fight the bill in the Constitutional Court if they have to. Ostensibly the Secrecy Bill that was first put before parliament in 2008 is important to protect national security. Its clauses go way beyond national security: it interferes with whistleblowers’ rights in an open democracy to expose corruption. It also interferes with investigative journalists’ jobs, which sometimes necessitate the acquiring and possession of certain documents, which could be too easily classified as illegal under the bill. Most importantly, it interferes with South Africans right to know.
The Secrecy Bill also contradicts our progressive legislation; for instance, the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000, and the Constitution’s clauses on freedom of expression and freedom to impart information.
In 2011, amendments to the Bill were made by the National Council of Provinces, including a limited public defence clause (you can be in possession of a classified document but you have to prove it reveals criminal activity).
The following are what critics consider problematic about the bill:
‘National interest’ has not been narrowed down sufficiently and the now partial limited interest defence still criminalises some activity of investigative journalism.
Wide-ranging powers are still given to the security cluster/agency, which could tend the country towards a security state.
The classifier of information may classify categories of documents without interrogating whether each specific document poses a threat to national security.
There is likely to be over-classification and hence self-censorship among journalists who fear imprisonment.
The most serious problem is jail sentences of between 15 and 25 years for espionage. Journalists and whistleblowers could fall into this bracket.
If this bill is passed in its current form, there is a fear that South Africa will be harking back to the dark days of cover-ups. In addition to this bill, the Media Appeals Tribunal (which would make journalists ultimately accountable to parliament rather than to their peers and the public) remains a threat because it is a resolution of the African National Congress, the ruling party. But this tribunal idea seems to be on the back burner. May it stay there and not resurface.
In the UK, the powerful, closing ranks to protect their secrets, go so far as to protect people from not just the press but from internet censorship too. In the US, this extends to torture for a young soldier exposing war crimes through releasing documents, and in South Africa our investigative journalists could face espionage charges.
We have governments blinded by their own ideologies – thinking they are doing the right thing. Or it could be more cynical and obvious than that – they are using ‘national security’ to cut directly into press freedom, because they are failing their people and don’t want exposure. The questions remain: Are there enough media freedom activists to take up the challenge in this tug of war? Will we be brave enough to risk going to jail for our stories and views?
Dr Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer at Wits Journalism and co-ordinator of the ‘State of the Newsroom’ project.
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