Parliament to seek legal advice on media
Johannesburg - Parliament would seek legal advice on its media relations policy after an uproar over the protocol, spokesperson Luzuko Jacobs said on Wednesday.
"We are going to refer this policy for vetting to our legal services," he said.
Jacobs said it was not true that the "Policy on Media Relations Management", approved in 2009, dictated that journalists needed permission to speak to support staff from political parties at Parliament.
The policy applied only to journalists seeking information on the business of Parliament, and information from parliamentary officers who were civil servants, he said.
He was reacting after Parliament sent a letter to the editor of Independent Newspapers on an article journalist Deon de Lange wrote, using information from an unnamed parliamentary official.
Parliament asked why De Lange's parliamentary accreditation should not be withdrawn.
The article dealt with the protection of information bill.
Comment was not immediately available from Moegsien Williams, editor of The Star, or from Jabulani Sikhakhane, Independent Newspapers' group political editor.
Jacobs said: "The subject of the comment was nothing more than an opinion, and a negative opinion expressed in relation to a party in Parliament.
"It is unethical, unacceptable and we can't have officials expressing a negative or a positive comment. As officers we have to be unattached and neutral."
The opposition Democratic Alliance, the parliamentary Press Gallery Association (PGA), the Cape Town Press Club, the National Press Club (NPC) and the SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) all said on Tuesday that it was the first they heard of the policy.
But Jacobs said anyone applying to Parliament for accreditation was required to agree on a form to abide by the rules and policies of Parliament.
These were on Parliament's website, or available on request and there had been complaints about the policy before.
However, following concerns raised by media representatives on Tuesday, Jacobs said it became clear that: "It could well be ambiguous".
"The policy relates to officers of Parliament - people like me who are employed in the administration."
"In the letter, we indicated that only the secretary to parliament and the person delegated by him could speak on these issues.
"Parliament has no jurisdiction on what you say from your party. But you cannot speak on behalf of the institution of Parliament."
Jacobs said the intention was "definitely not" to make journalists apply for permission to speak to MPs.
Some people in the PGA had told him that they knew there was a policy, but they did not know that it had been reviewed in 2009, he said.
Jacobs said there "may not have been a consultation" at the review point, but the policy was not new.
DA parliamentary leader Atholl Trollip said he had written to the speaker of parliament asking why parties and media stakeholders were not consulted.
"There are two issues at stake here. The first is why Parliament has allowed itself to be used to fight a party-political battle against media freedom.
"The second is why a draconian draft media protocol devised in a vacuum is being used to gag the press gallery," he said.
Pieter Groenewald, the parliamentary leader of the Freedom Front Plus, said Parliament could not "one-sidedly make decisions for MPs".
"The media should be allowed to communicate freely with whomever it wishes. It always remains the other party's prerogative to react or refrain from reacting," Groenewald said.
The NPC said it would not allow "such blatant interference with the work of the media".
"It is undemocratic and unconstitutional," said NPC chairperson Yusuf Abramjee.
"Some are also seeing this as an intimidation tactic and we strongly condemn it."
The policy was signed in 2009 by National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chairperson Mninwa Mahlangu and National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu.
The PGA said it was "beyond absurd" to control who journalists spoke to in Parliament through an "unearthed" set of rules.
The policy document was never circulated or discussed in any form with the PGA.
"Parliament has never approached the PGA to make inputs into this policy. The PGA would never have agreed to many, if not all, of the provisions in the document," said Pressly.
"This included that journalists should not approach party support staff - itself an utterly absurd notion in a democracy - or employees of Parliament to seek information on parliamentary matters."
Sanef spokesperson Raymond Louw said the policy was signed at roughly the time the PGA was moved out of the Parliament building to another building in the precinct.
At the time, this was seen as an attempt to prevent ready access by reporters to members of Parliament.
The policy seemed to have a similar motive - to prevent reporters from having open contact with MPs, Louw said.
Louw said Parliament did not have the power to withdraw accreditation - only the Speaker, or the NCOP chairperson had that right.
De Lange had every right to speak to anybody in Parliament and if they didn't want to give information, it was their choice.