ANC’s homeopathic tincture for the media

2010-11-27 00:00

THE media will heave a collective sigh of relief at signs that the African National Congress’s proposed media legislation will be watered down. What eventually emerges from Parliament will, much like a homeopathic tincture, be efficacious only in the minds of true believers.

ANC éminence grise Pallo Jordan was this week scathing about his party’s proposed media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill, when he was supposed to be arguing in their favour, nogal. Speaking at a National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) panel discussion, Jordan had the courage to say the obvious.

Attempting to muzzle the modern media is a “fool’s errand” in the light of the freedoms provided by the Internet, said Jordan.

The ANC is backing itself into a “lose-lose situation” — at risk of losing its credibility on media freedom and losing a mooted constitutional challenge — and “if the movement pursues this path … those who want to rubbish us will have every right to do so.”

Jordan’s common sense highlights the fact that the threat of a media appeals tribunal has been driven by emotion rather than reason. Many ANC politicians, including the president, clearly feel aggrieved that the media publishes information that in the ANC view infringes personal privacy.

That in modern democracies the private and public lives of politicians are inextricably woven is not a big factor for a government smarting from an endless stream of damaging reports about multimillion contracts “won” by nephews, about a health minister who thieved from her patients, and about presidential sexual adventures. It seems easier to control the media than to control the politicians, hence the media appeals tribunal.

Aside from public pressure and growing disquiet among some ANC members, what has also eased the threat of the tribunal is that the media is scrambling to tighten up its quality controls.

The Press Ombudsman has become sterner with transgressions. Embarrassingly, Stellenbosch University research shows that only five percent of journalists have ever read the ethics code — and there has been a belated, albeit uneven, return to old-fashioned journalistic principles, such as seeking out independent corroboration of damaging allegations before publishing.

The Protection of Information Bill, however, remains a threat to the public interest. State law adviser Enver Daniels, also speaking at the Nadel meeting, reiterated the government line that the intention of the bill is “to make information more accessible by classifying less information”.

He makes his laughable assertion on the basis that the number of classification categories will be reduced from four to three and that the Protection of Access to Information Act (PAIA) provides a public right-to-know.

Clearly Daniels has never tried to use PAIA. State entities routinely ignore requests under the act and get away with it.

In any case, when it comes to classification, governments invariably err on the side of caution when classifying documents, even when classification is not being used as a means of concealing government wrong-doing.

An analysis by Stratfor, a global independent intelligence group, of the United States’s military documents released on WikiLeaks, concludes that few contain truly secret information and that the documents “highlight the culture of classification that is so pervasive”.

Stratfor writes: “This culture also tends to reinforce the belief among government employees that knowledge is power and that one can become powerful by having access to information and denying that access to others.”

Take the state’s natural penchant for secrecy, add in the party political cost of disclosures of malfeasance and it is hardly surprising then that the ANC government concluded that it needs legislation that clamps down on what the public is allowed to know.

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