Beware the laws that muzzle media

Posted on December 1, 2019

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Forget, for the moment, state capture. Think instead of media capture and the impact it can — and does — have on all our lives. At the same time, consider too the ongoing attempts to discredit journalism and the media.

That we should all do so was highlighted last week by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng when he delivered the annual Nelson Mandela lecture. Speaking of judges and magistrates, he said: “Watch us closely, otherwise our constitutional democracy is gone…who do we associate with the most? Who are we uncomfortably or indecently friendly to? And check judgments when those people are involved. Ask yourself, does it make sense?”

The same questions apply to the other two traditional pillars of parliamentary democracy: the legislature and the executive. And it is perhaps even more important to watch closely and report honestly on the corporations and wealthy individuals who exercise inordinate power and influence over government.

The only questions are: who does the watching and reporting and how is this information disseminated? This is the role of the fourth pillar — the “Fourth Estate”: journalism and the media it serves — print, broadcast and digital.

But honest, evidence-based journalism is under increasing pressure, especially with so many media outlets compromised or captured, producing often scurrilous attacks on individual journalists along with a welter of fake news. We should be particularly worried at present, because there are now two Bills, passed by parliament and aimed at restricting information that are waiting to be signed into law.

Despite protests, government has also ignored the fact that minerals minister Gwede Mantashe severely besmirched the integrity of journalism and the media when he admitted to the criminal offence of bribery. He subsequently said he had not paid R70 000 to two unnamed journalists to withhold a report about his private life, but the smear remained.

There has been no explanation, no apology. Just as there has been no condemnation of scurrilous attacks on individual journalists in captured media outlets. This all adds to undermining all media and opens the way to wider acceptance of laws that will curtail access to information and freedom of expression.

The first of these laws, the Protection of State Information Bill — dubbed the “Secrecy Bill” — has been gathering dust in the presidential office for the past six years. It was stopped by mass protests in 2013.

Although the security services have indicated that they would still like to see this Bill signed into law, it is unlikely to happen. But only because the Critical Infrastructure Protection Bill (CIPB) exists and was passed this week without much public outcry. Like the first Bill, it is aimed to replace the notorious apartheid era National Key Points Act of 1980.

One of the aims of these laws is to declare certain areas to be off limits to public scrutiny. For example, had the Secrecy Bill been signed into law in 2013, it would have been illegal to expose the scandal of the R246 million in so-called “security upgrades” to former president Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence.

And while the CIPB repeals most aspects of the apartheid law, it still contains clauses that open the way to block or hamper the free flow of news. As a submission to government from a group of media freedom organisations noted: “Certain of the current provisions of the latest Bill are not progressive, do not accord with the Constitution and are out of step with South Africa’s commitments to good governance and transparency…”

In the present circumstances, anyone who treasures the level of democracy we still enjoy, should be very deeply concerned.