New Press Legislation in South Africa Raises Alarm about Media Freedom

Washington

Freedom House today raised alarm about proposed legislation that could potentially place further restrictions on press freedom in South Africa by limiting the public’s right to access information, as well as the ability of investigative reporters to hold the government to account.
 
The Protection of Information bill, put forward by the Ministry of Intelligence and currently under consideration by the South African parliament, is a revised version of a bill initially submitted in 2008, which was rejected due to concerns it would lead to excessive official secrecy. Several provisions in the bill are cause for serious concern, including an overly broad definition of “national interest” with regards to classifying information and heavy penalties of up to 25 years in prison for the publication or dissemination of official or classified information. Additionally, those seeking to access or declassify information face several obstacles, including bearing the burden of proof that public interest outweighs national security concerns.
 
“This law, if passed, is certain to have a chilling effect on press freedom as well as violating the right of its citizens to access information,” said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House. “It is concerning when a democratic government moves for less transparency, not more, and it would be regrettable if the South African parliament allows this to happen.”
 
The proposed bill represents a further threat in an environment where media freedom has eroded in recent years. In Freedom of the Press 2010, Freedom House’s annual press freedom index, South Africa was downgraded from Free to Partly Free to reflect several negative developments, including increased negative rhetoric against the press by top government officials, encroachments on the independence of the national broadcaster, and the passage of the Film and Publications Act in 2009.
 
“The proposed legislation, along with recent moves to form a Media Appeals Tribunal to police media performance, demonstrate that press freedom in one of the continent’s most open media environments can no longer be taken for granted,” said Karin Karlekar, Managing Editor of Freedom of the Press. “We call on the government to reverse this trend and to refrain from proposals that will further erode the ability of the media to perform their vital watchdog role in South Africa’s vibrant democracy.”
 
 South Africa is currently ranked Free in Freedom in the World 2010, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties and Partly Free in Freedom of the Press 2010.
 
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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.  
 
 
 
 
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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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