01 May, 2012

Secrecy Bill: Questions and Answers

Unesco World Press Freedom Day Conference, which takes place from 3-5 May 2012, will be yet another opportunity for journalists and media practitioners to re-evaluate their roles in the media industry whilst South African lawmakers are currently meeting in committee to discuss, clause by clause, various aspects of the Protection of Information Bill being championed by the government. Dubbed the ‘secrecy bill,’ this proposed piece of legislation is making journalists and civil society activists increasingly nervous that their professional quest for the truth will become a highly risky endeavour if the bill is passed into law. Nqobile Sibisi, the Future Journalists Programme coordinator, answers some questions on the importance of press freedom and why the ‘secrecy bill’ threatens the values of South Africa’s Constitution.

Why do you think people all over South Africa rallying against the Secrecy Bill?

Well, because it goes against everything that South African's fought for to realise our present democratic stance. When you look at South African history, the press- a radical free-voiced press for that matter, operating under the most difficult of situations, was crucial to the annihilation of apartheid, and ensuring policy decisions take to account the plural voice of the people. This Protection of Information Bill, often dubbed "Secrecy Bill", will see to journalists being jailed for up to 25 years for revealing information, which ANC authorities argue would be otherwise 'classified- in the national interest.' The contradiction is baffling, since media reports those very matters in the national interest, which inform policy decisions through consulting with the South Africans citizenry. So why should media be censored and jailed for informing the citizenry of issues they have the right to know of.

In terms of academic research, what are the upsides of having the bill?

I am not an academic, but the positives is that I can immediately point out are:

(1) It has reignited passion from the citizenry's side to keep watch of government; has demonstrated and encouraged the unity of our people, including civil society, who have realised the power of their voices. Our government knows now that as democracy goes into its second decade, it cannot think even once that the people have forgotten the power of their opinions, freedom of expression, the right to know matters of the state and decide the fate of the country as a collective.

(2) Media has been in a way alerted to the fact that information we publish must be attained through the right channels in the ambit of the law, and this goes for global media. For example, it did not help our situation when Rupert Murdock's News of The World was caught-up in that scandalous saga of tapping phones and doing underground dealings to acquire information. Such covert processes, which quite frankly infringe on our subjects' or source's freedoms, jeopardise our credibility as the Fourth (and I also include the Fifth) Estate. We as the media, in our practice, need to be guided by our own industry ethics and principles of journalism, otherwise nobody else will take us seriously.

In light of Freedom Day, where we honour and celebrate men and women who have fought against freedom abuses, what does the Secrecy Bill mean for the ideals of freedom in South Africa?"

Irrespective of the justification from government, the secrecy bill infringes the notion of freedom. We wouldn't have celebrated Freedom Day this coming Friday if it wasn't for a brave, vocal, fearless press, so the our authorities need to think about that. I'm concerned and afraid though, that the world has moved to this high-intel society where governments deal greatly in stealth-missions, coupled with a proliferation of conspiracy information from an erray of sources online (media and citizen journalists alike- who try to make sense of the situation), so it is increasingly getting more difficulty to sift what is real and truthful information and what is not, and what authorities are hiding or not hiding..Truly, we live in interesting times! But with all that said, the freedom of the press, is still crucial!.

Anything you would like to add, that you deem is relavent?

Highway Africa's Future Journalists Programme (FJP) is taking a group of 25 multination 'future journalists' to the Unesco Press Freedom Day Conference in Tunis, Tunisia, next week. These students from universities in S.A/U.S/Tunisia/Senegal/Qatar/Egypt, will form the newsroom reporting this conference from 1-6 May as part of a meaningful experiential learning offered by HA, Unesco and the Open Society Initiative (OSI). In the process, the students will be addressed by global media heads, Unesco media directors, learning of the crux of Press Freedom, what they should watch out for, how the press should handle pressure from oppressive governments and a whole lot more. And, I am yet to hear of any major celebrations in South Africa for the 21st anniversary of World Press Freedom Day- 3 May, which all began with the Windhoek Declaration 21 years ago in Namibia. We need to be guided by our own industry ethics and principles of journalism, otherwise nobody else will take us seriously.

No comments: