No news is bad news!

By Drum Digital
08 September 2010

YOU must have been living under a rock not to have noticed that something big is happening in the media world. Columns and editorials have been dedicated to it in newspapers and magazines, radio talkshow hosts have debated it and important people have voiced their opinions. It is the Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal – two proposals that have been called a double attack aimed at the media by the ANC government.

Critics have called it the most depressing matter to hit the print media since the dark days of apartheid when the government gagged newspapers and magazines at will. In short, it is a direct threat to our precious democracy. Still unsure about what all this means exactly? Read on...

Why the fuss?

The proposed Protection of Information Bill violates section 32 of the constitution. The section, which deals with access to information, states: “Everyone has the right to have access to:

* Information which the government has

* Information that someone else has if they need it to protect any of their rights.

The Promotion of Access to Information Act gives people a right of access to all kinds of government information, providing very limited reasons why officials can refuse to give such information. This act is a good weapon against corruption and makes the government transparent and accountable.

If the new bill becomes law South Africans will be robbed of the right to information and the constitution will in effect be toothless. “In the absence of the free flow of information, democracy becomes meaningless,” says Professor Pierre de Vos, SA’s leading constitutional expert.

1. The protection of information bill

What is it? 

The bill aims to protect government information. Its purpose would be to give the ruling party the power to keep a wide range of information – including matters dealing with state corruption – from its citizens.

The Implications

At present only issues of state security are classified, as is the case in countries around the world. But the bill goes much further than that. It proposes:

* Any government employee – from a local council worker to a school teacher, from the president to a middle-manager at a parastatal – can classify any information they think will be a threat to the national interest.

* The “national interest” is broadly defined in the bill and includes everything from the pursuit of justice and democracy to economic growth, free trade and sound international relations.

* If anyone reports on a classified document they could face a jail term of between five and 25 years.

* You can be jailed for between three to five years, even if someone e-mails you something that has been classified. You’re also guilty if you are found to have classified information on Facebook or on a blog.

When will this happen?

* The bill is currently before parliament where a range of organisations and individuals have commented on it.

* It will be debated over the coming months and will then either go back for redrafting or be tabled in parliament.

* If passed into law by parliament it will no doubt be challenged by media leaders in the Constitutional Court.

* If the court does not find the legislation unconstitutional, legal experts warn the highest court in the land will no longer have any value and our democracy will be seriously weakened.

What this means

DRUM, like all magazines and newspapers, will be severely gagged if the bill becomes law. Anything the government deems classified will be out of bounds to us, including anything to do with corruption by state officials or departments and anything that puts the government in too bad a light. DRUM stories you would not have been able to read if the bill had been in place include:

* The article on disgraced former police chief Jackie Selebi’s colourful – and controversial - past as a history teacher.

Read the full article in DRUM of 16 September 2010

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