As the excitement of the World Cup dies down, the South African media fades back into the familiar territory of fighting for freedom of speech. The African National Congress (ANC) is currently in the process of passing a couple of new pieces of legislation which appear antithetical to freedom of the press. The first being the Protection of Information Bill, in which there are relatively low standards for protecting what journalist are allowed to publish. Information such as commercial governmental contracts, state-owned enterprise and state entities are considered classified under the Protection of information. If the bill passes, journalist who violate the this law could spend up to 25 years in jail. The second is the announcement that a "media tribunal" will oversee the general media to stop "unfair" criticism.
The South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) had their General Meeting in Johannesburg earlier this week to voice their disapproval of these impositions. On the 26th of July, a press statement was released claiming that the SANEF believed the legislation was purely unconstitutional. It can be argued that the differences between national security and national interests were not well defined in the bill, thus any type of criticism against the state could be considered in violation. SANEF also stressed that the current Press Council and Press Ombudsman system is working effectively to deal with public complaints, and therefore there is no need for the media tribunal which may censor material before it is put into print. They also stated that the SANEF is "resolved to work with other like-minded groups in a campaign for public support for media freedom."
Yesterday the chief state law adviser Enver Daniels declared the the legislation was completely legal under the constitution. He noted that the bill prevented journalists from publishing anything without repercussions, and that further defining the national interests would rendwe the bill arbitrary. The fact that Daniels shot down protests of the bill only a mere few days after the SANEF's statement only shows further that there is probably very little room for compromise in the new bills.
If passed, the bill would greatly restrict essentially anything that journalist could say to challenge actions of the state. This comes during a time when quality of journalism is already poor in the country, such as the Ashley Smith case in which the journalist took brides from political figures to sway the media in a certain direction. The bill could only result in further damaging journalism in the region. As the Mail&Guardian recently remarked "the free flow of information and the robust debate we experienced (sic) are not only the lifeblood of our industry, they also represent democracy in action."