No news is bad news


Imagine it: a YOU magazine in which you’re barred from reading about a corrupt police chief who accepted gifts of thousands if not millions of rands from an overconfident drug baron - his friend. Or a YOU in which there isn’t a single word about illegal arms deals.

It could happen. You’re living in a country where it could soon be illegal to write about things such as children dying in state hospitals, or to attempt to find out why our former health minister, the late Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was able to get liver transplant so quickly.

This kind of blissful ignorance about all sorts of abuse of power, government corruption and incompetence is what awaits South Africans if parliament passes the proposed Protection of Information Bill.

The government will then be able to classify any information it deems a threat to our national interest and prosecute anyone it sees as transgressors.

Had this bill become law when the media received information from police sources about former police chief Jackie Selebi’s dubious contacts journalists could have been jailed for 25 years if the documents were classified.

On the face of it the objectives of the new legislation seem quite noble, legal experts agree: to ensure important government information is protected in the interests of national security.

But critics of the legislation say its real target is journalists and others who have made things uncomfortable for politicians in the past few years by revealing government officials’ and politicians’ irregular dealings.

Also severely criticised is the ANC’s proposal for a media tribunal to be created for government regulation of the media by means of a legal panel appointed by parliament.

The concept is still being discussed in the ANC but the idea would be for government to address media infringements on behalf of the public. And that’s a dangerous situation, media expert and professor of journalism at Witwatersrand University Anton Harber says.

Under apartheid reporters weren’t just muzzled, they were often harassed and detained. In 1980 there were also plans for a media tribunal. The proposal was scrapped in the face of public outcry.

* Don’t miss the latest issue of YOU (26 August) to find out what some of our staffers experienced in the era of media gagging.

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