August 25, 2010

South Africa's "Protection of Information Bill" - A Fledgling Democracy's Struggle to Define the Role of Media?

“This is the threat of a return to the censorship under apartheid,” said Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel Laureate from South Africa whose books have been banned in the country, about the recently proposed Protection of Information Bill by the South African National Congress (ANC).

Sensationalism sells, and that is true in any part of the world. However, does that mean that information be withheld from the public simply because it does not do well for the image of the country; a reason cited by some ANC leaders in favor of the new Bill. The role of the media in a fledgling democracy is always under close scrutiny until such time that the public's need for transparency in government dealings is appeased, and it usually falls on the media to ensure that transparency. As a result, in a new democracy such as SA, the media often finds itself battling with the party in power who, even though they "fought for majority rule, morphed into a kleptocratic elite" within a short span of time in order to "hang onto power", as was the case even in Zimbabwe.

Here are the two sides to this issue in SA:
"The Protection of Information Bill seeks to establish a new regime for the classification of government documents and provides draconian prison terms for those who publish classified information, leading to the criticism that it will effectively shut down investigative journalism. "

The media in SA, with it's disclosures regarding paybacks to ministers for signing off on major business contracts and the lavish and often socially questionable lifestyles of those in power, has come under attack for churning out reams of sensational writings. South African Communist Party (SACP) secretary- general Blade Nzimande had this to say about the role of media in democracies. “While media can be a very important ally to democracy, it can be a severe obstacle to advancement.”

If this Bill were to be passed in SA it would allow the government to classify a large category of information under the umbrella of 'national interest', which is defined as " “all matters relating to the advancement of the public good” and “the survival and security of the state.” While the common man believes the bill will "gag the media on corruption" since it threatens imprisonment of anywhere between 3 to 25 years for journalists who are in violation of the ruling.

The questions many South Africans are grappling with at this time are perhaps:
  • Should media be penalized for releasing information on the corrupt dealings of people in power?
  • What information is to be designated as 'classified' and who defines and implements the 'classification'?
  • Must the media respect the code of silence regarding classified information, and what will be the penalty for a journalist if he releases classified information to the public?
  • How are other democracies dealing with this?
The "Protection of Information Bill" is moving through the South African Parliament as we speak, and what is worrisome is that the A.N.C. has a nearly two-thirds majority there.


Anonymous said...

Uganda seems to be solving some of its media problems here:

Georg said...

Bonjour Id,

South Africa is slowly becoming African.

Already the democratically elected present president of this country with his shady past is a big step into this direction.

Exciting developments ahead.


Anonymous said...

That map is wrong.