Today, MPs in South Africa passed the 'Protection of Information Act' that menaces press freedom and that prompted demonstrations from protestors clad in black in the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. They protested against this dark day for the media, commonly referred to as 'Black Tuesday'. Celebrities and public figures also been tweeting in support of the high profile campaign and helping boost public interest and debate around the bill.
The idea of 'Black Tuesday' sprung from an incident in 1977, commonly referred to as 'Black Wednesday', when the apartheid government banned a range of news publications and journalists who were associated with the black consciousness movement that struggled for civil rights in South Africa.
As this WAN-IFRA Press Freedom article explains, this new law has been proposed in order to protect the state against "espionage" and guard "national interests".
Opponents of the law dubbed it the "secrecy bill" due to the severe restrictions it places on the freedom of information and the excessive penalties it imposes upon those who infringe the law. Any information that is deemed to be of "national interest"- a vague term that remains largely undefined- can be 'protected' under this bill, whether that information be a government document or files from a police investigation. And the sentence for publishing 'protected' information? 25 years in prison.
The ANC, South Africa's governing party, has also proposed a plan to establish a Media Appeals Tribunal that would be presided over by the government and would be charged with regulating disputes against the media. This system of regulation could have a severe impact on the liberty and autonomy of the press; the accepted model for such tribunals, in countries that are judged to have high standards of press freedom, dictates that any regulation be free from state interference.
The Nelson Mandela Center of Memory fiercely criticized the bill, arguing that it does not meet with the nations goals for freedom of expression. The foundation also suggested several ways in which the bill could be ameliorated to safeguard freedom of the press, including suggesting drastic changes, such as the idea that requests could be made to access classified information via the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) and reformulating what constitutes an offense under the act "to focus on the harm caused by the mishandling or disclosure of classified information rather than, as is currently the case, the mere fact that information was classified", as News24.com explains.
The bill was passed this afternoon - without any amendments in favour of public interest and freedom of information.