The threat of South Africa’s Info Bill

Posted on October 8, 2011


(First published September 23, 2011)

Journalists think they are something special; that they should have more rights than other citizens and that the media somehow sees itself as above the law. These views have been expressed by a number of ANC members of parliament. They have been aired in defence of the Protection of State Information Bill that was this week withdrawn from parliament for “further consultation”.

ANC MP Luwellyn Landers who, with fellow lawyer and MP Cecil Burgess, has been the driving force behind the Bill, maintains that the proposed new law would “merely make the media subject to the rule of law”. It would do so by excluding the right to publish “classified” information that was clearly in the public interest.

The implication that the media in all its forms is not already subject to the rule of law is obviously ridiculous. And removing the right to publish information that, by one or other means has entered the public domain, and is in the public interest makes a mockery of democracy.

That is something the labour movement has made clear. On behalf of workers in every discipline, including journalism, the trade unions oppose this latest move to restrict the free flow of information. They do so because such restrictions affect all citizens; it is a classic example of an injury to one being an injury to all.

The labour movement recognises that good governance should be based on the principles of transparency and accountability and these are undermined by secrecy. So every citizen, from whatever background, is harmed when information in the public interest is withheld. This is especially true when it has already “leaked” into the public domain and, by defintion, can no longer be regarded as secret.

This is the basis of the opposition to the Bill: a common cause felt by individuals, groups and organisations across all of society — perhaps the most politically diverse movement the country has seen. Journalists and the media as a whole are a special focus only in that they are the conduits through which information flows to the wider public.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi last month summed up this view when he delivered the Ruth First memorial lecture in Johannesburg. He pointed out that the existence of such a Bill raised questions about a slide from democracy.

The Bill would have caused Ruth First — famous as an investigative reporter — to wonder, “where have all the democrats gone?” Its passing into law would make a mockery of her work as a journalist, her said.

At the same time, in Cape Town, constitutional law expert, Professor Pierre de Vos announced that he would wager a year of his salary that the “secrecy bill” would not pass muster at the Constitutional Court.

Although De Vos did not spell it out, clause 16 of the Bill of Rights gives every citizen the right to “receive or impart information or ideas”. And, logically, this clause also stresses the “freedom of the press and other media”.

The restrictions to this freedom are also listed: propaganda for war, incitement to violence and advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to harm. To which may be added the legal sanctions that already apply in cases of defamation and libel, to the publication of information with malicious intent.

There is also the question of publishing information that recklessly endangers life and limb. And for this, legal sanctions also already apply, making the work of good journalism no easy matter.

In this context, journalists — and I declare my interest in being one — have no more rights than any other citizens. Nor do we claim any.

We also share a common duty with parliamentarians, other elected representatives and civil servants, in that we are in the business of serving the public interest. On current showings, journalists are doing rather better on this score than are the politicians.

Because of the nature of our work, we also have special responsibilities: as writers, reporters and editors in whatever medium, the role of the journalist — the purveyor of information in the public interest — is to be the eyes and ears of the public at large.

Because we are human, often working under pressure and frequently under resourced, we sometimes make mistakes. And, when we do, we can face both professional and legal sanctions.

We operate under ethical guidelines laid down in codes of practice that make clear that the goal of journalism is to reflect, as honestly and accurately as possible, all events, incidents, and information that is in the public interest. It is a major responsibility and often requires sensitivity, a high degree of critical analysis and considerable background knowledge.

This means that journalists should be as objective as possible in reporting facts — without fear or favour. We are also enjoined, again so far as possible, to make clear where subjective opinion intervenes in our reportage.

When we get it right, we get both the facts and the meaning of events right. Good journalism is a record of human history, describing the present, acknowledging the past and providing a view of the roots of the future.

Such work, as the American investigative reporter, T. D. Allman noted: “Is journalism that, ten, twenty, fifty years after the fact, still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events. It is compelling, not only today, but stands the test of time.”

By and large, this job is reasonably well done in our liberal parliamentary democracy, despite the media often being a convenient whipping boy for politicians and unions. Shooting the messenger has a long history and the secrecy Bill is merely another, although very serious, example.

But we do have a constitution that flies in the face of secrecy. And we have the internet. As Wikileaks and the flow of “classified” information from countries such as Syria, Iran and China have shown us, locking media stable doors amounts only to intimidation when the horse of free information has already long bolted and seems unlikely to be caught again.