Johannesburg, December 8, 2011–South African authorities should heed widespread calls to drop a “secrecy bill” that opponents say will criminalize whistle-blowing and stifle investigative journalism, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
The Protection of State Information Bill, which makes possessing or publishing anything the government deems “classified” an offense punishable by up to 25 years in prison, was passed by the National Assembly last month and now must be approved by the upper house of Parliament before President Jacob Zuma can sign it into law.
During a fact-finding and advocacy mission to South Africa this week, CPJ Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe, along with CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney, met with a broad spectrum of journalists, editors, press freedom advocates, and civil society leaders to discuss the bill. African National Congress spokesman Jackson Mthembu told CPJ that the ANC believed the bill was needed to replace apartheid-era law and safeguard state secrets, and denied that it was a gag on the media. “There is no intention to curb media freedom in this country,” he told CPJ.
Mthembu also said that the press needed to strengthen self-regulation to better balance an individual’s constitutional right to dignity against the media’s right to publish. But journalists said that a proposed tribunal, which would answer to parliament–where the ANC holds nearly two-thirds of the seats–would be tantamount to state control.
The passing of the bill has galvanized opposition across South African civil society. Last month, labor unions, a key ally of the ruling ANC, pledged to join a campaign against the proposed legislation. Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s foundation have both expressed opposition to the bill. Other opponents have vowed to petition the Constitutional Court to review the bill if it becomes law.
The bill’s critics also say that a public interest defense clause is vital given the severity of the punishment that those convicted under the statute could face. Such a clause would allow journalists to argue that disclosure served the public’s right to know and outweighed the state’s right for non-disclosure.
“We share the concerns of our colleagues in the South African media that this proposed law will have a serious, chilling effect on journalists and deprive the public of information that should be available in a democracy,” CPJ Chairman Rowe said. “This is undemocratic legislation. At the very least, this type of bill should include a ‘public interest’ clause to protect those who publish information in cases where citizens’ right to know trumps the authorities’ desire for secrecy.”
Many print journalists told CPJ they feared an ANC proposal to set up a government-run Media Appeals Tribunal to examine complaints against newspapers. The Press Council of South Africa currently provides a self-regulatory mechanism for readers to address grievances against newspapers that publish apologies and retractions if complaints against them are upheld.
Mthembu said the government and the ANC were consulting with all sides in the debate and believed that the bill would not violate the constitution. “The president will not sign an unconstitutional bill,” he told CPJ.