President Jacob Zuma wants to meet with media owners and senior editors soon to discuss fears that government is trying to muzzle the press.
Several ministers would also attend the meeting aimed at discussing the controversial Protection of Information Bill and the ANC’s call for a media tribunal, he told journalists at a briefing following yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.
Government spokesperson Themba Maseko said: “What government discussed yesterday is just the need for some interaction to take place between government and senior editors to just explain what is really happening.
“We understand that a lot of the developments taking place currently, the Protection of Information Bill, the proposal of a media tribunal, the arrest of a journalist, all of these things are contributing to a climate where the perception could emerge that there is a government plan to muzzle the media.
“I just want to make it very clear that there isn’t such a plan on the part of government.”
Maseko said Cabinet did not discuss the arrest yesterday of Sunday Times investigative reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika, which the weekly’s editor, Ray Hartley, has described as “an operation which was clearly designed to intimidate”.
Ministers were not aware of the arrest at the time as it took place while they were meeting, he said.
The arrest comes amid mounting alarm that the State is seeking to place severe constraints on media freedom, and investigative reporting in particular, with the Protection of Information Bill, which makes publishing classified information a crime punishable with up to 25 years in jail.
These fears have been confounded by the ruling party’s renewed call ahead of its policy conference next month for the introduction of a media tribunal that reports to Parliament.
Maseko said the tribunal at this stage remained no more than an ANC proposal, but needed to be “part and parcel” of the discussion between the president and the press because of the public debate it has raised.
“It is not yet a concrete proposal from government. It will be taken to the policy conference of the ruling party, it will be debated there and if it is adopted it may then serve as a formal policy proposal in government,” Maseko said.
He said the meeting between Zuma, ministers and editors was a matter of urgency “so we do not end up being on opposing sides, as enemies,” he said: “That meeting needs to take place sooner rather than later to just quell the negative mood that exists in the media.”
But Maseko declined to say whether government remained open to persuasion on the information bill.
It has widely been branded unconstitutional and the political opposition has called for it to be withdrawn and redrafted.
Maseko said: “It will be premature for me to predetermine what will be the most likely outcome of such a meeting.
“In previous meetings between editors and Cabinet issues were raised and Cabinet has always said okay, we will listen to you and go back and think about one or two issues.
“At this stage I’m not making any commitment either way as far as the bill is concerned.”