Media watchdog slams reporting rules

2010-08-12 18:21

Vienna - Proposed media regulations in South Africa pose a threat to the independence and vitality of the country's journalism, a leading international watchdog said on Thursday.

The Vienna-based International Press Institute said in a statement it had sent an open letter to President Jacob Zuma "expressing concern" over plans by the ANC for a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) and a protection of information bill.

In a letter signed by IPI's interim director Alison Bethel-McKenzie, the watchdog expressed concern that the planned regulations "will endanger the independence and vitality of the South African media.

"We believe that plans for a government-appointed Media Appeals Tribunal, as well as a draft protection of information bill, if enacted, will endanger the South African media and thereby threaten the people of South Africa's right to information and rigorous political debate," Bethel-McKenzie said.

The ANC argues that the media tribunal, first mooted in 2007, is needed to adjudicate complaints on media reports in a bid to make journalists legally accountable.

And the protection of information bill will classify information deemed to be of national security and make publication of classified information punishable with up to 25 years in jail.

IPI argued that there is already a "vigorous and successful system of self-regulation in place" via the Press Council, in the form of a press ombudsman and an appeals panel.

The tribunal however "will not be independent," IPI said.

"If the MAT is appointed by Parliament, it will face an inherent conflict of interest that will skew its rulings in favour of public and party officials and essentially amount to government oversight of the media - which is unacceptable."

IPI said the protection of information bill "provides for a very low threshold for the classification of information, but at the same time imposes draconian penalties on those who reveal that information".