Lizette Rabe

Stand up against censorship

2006-08-25 12:25

Lizette Rabe

The mediasphere is buzzing with the threat of censorship looming over our democracy after it became known that amendments to the Film and Publications Act was proposed without proper consultation.

With the alarm index moving into serious red amongst media and related institutions concerning the proposed amendments to the act, there is another question that needs to be answered: why is civil society so quiet?

Why are we not getting the message through that a basic right in a democracy is being tampered with?

Let's leave the mindset behind the amendments for the moment. Was it naïve civil servants who thought they could get it through? Or is it too awful to contemplate what sinister powers might be behind it?

So, let's rather use our energy to protest - work - against the amendment. And to submit, and support, and lobby for representations against the bill to the specific Parliamentary Portfolio Committee.

With our constitution entrenching freedom of speech, with various declarations, local and global, underwriting the principle of freedom of speech, how could this happen in broad daylight in South Africa? (See Licence to censor?, to get you up to speed with the issue if you've been on another continent this past week.)

There's the Windhoek Declaration, there's the African Charter on Broadcasting, there's the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. And organisations such as Sanef, MISA and the FXI referred to in last week's column. All of these declarations and bodies encapsulate the inalienable right to a free press.

Unfettered media

It's one of the basics: an unfettered media is the foundation of any democracy. Full stop.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights state that each person has the right to freedom of expression. That right also includes expressing an opinion without interference, and to search for, receive and disseminate information and ideas through any media.

So why are we fighting the current fight? How did our model-constitution get us to this point where a new bill literally makes a mockery of its own constitution?

Last year, the media have been gagged on several occasions, leading to the editor of one affected newspaper, Ferial Haffajee - and now chair of Sanef - to say media freedom is not challenged any more. It's threatened.

There's a feeling that there is a "growing intolerance" towards the idea of an independent, free media.

Take this statement: "The press and government are natural adversaries with different functions, and each must respect the role of the other". Reflect what the intended amendment will do this relationship and, more importantly, the media's function.

That's why there should be serious representations before the specific portfolio committee - and why you, the public should participate in this.

Take another statement: "The right of the people to speak out through a free press is a hallmark of a democratic society". Yes, indeed, it's going to affect you if you don't speak out.

Without a free media, there cannot be a democracy.

Fact: freedom of expression and freedom of the media is a fundamental part of any definition about democracy.

Fact: the amendments to the Film and Publications Act of 1996 go directly against the letter and spirit of the freedom of expression clause in our constitution.

Fact: no appropriate party was consulted during the drafting of the amendments.

Fact: since 1961, when the first act was introduced, even that government accepted self-regulation by the media (which, yes, in fact led to censorship to ensure they are not banned)

Fact: if accepted, self-censorship to not risk being banned will not only erode the product and therefore the dissemination of information, but also democracy.

Fact: The practical problems of printing a paper under deadlines, to be distributed according to a certain schedule, will be impossible. The same will apply to the electronic and online media and its production processes.

Fact: the proposed amendments are in direct contravention of journalism?s ethos, as formulated in Article 16 in our Bill of Rights.

And to end of with, a question.

Is it not criminal for public servants, serving a democracy, who are paid by tax payers, and are in the employ of the public, to draft such an amendment?

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