Daryl Ilbury

A sad day for journalists

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Scoundrels on November 22, 2011 at 7:46 am

This morning I reread my notes from a lecture I attended yesterday on the British Freedom of Information Act. The act gives journalists the right to ask any public body for any information they have on any subject. Unless there is a good reason, that organisation must provide the requested information within 20 days. This applies to, amongst others, government departments, local authorities, health trusts, hospitals, the police, and non-departmental  public bodies, committees and advisory bodies.

Briefly, if any organisation receives any funds from the state, it must hand over any information requested by a journalist. This includes e-mails. The reason for this is to help the media in their role as the watchdog protecting the rights and interests of the British people.

Today South Africa takes a giant stumble in the exact opposite direction when the Protection of State Information Bill (aka the ‘Secrecy Bill’) is presented before Parliament. Driven by the ruling ANC, the Bill, if passed will allow any government authority – local municipal through to national government – to deem any information a state secret and therefore prevent public access to it.

South Africa boasts horrifying levels of corruption. Public funds earmarked for social development are stolen by governmental officials and state employees capitalising on a largely uncritical populace. The press have worked tirelessly to uncover such corruption and have, in the process, raised the ire of the ruling party; hence the ANC’s promotion of the Bill.

They have portrayed the media as everything from interfering, to (laughingly) anti-democracy, through to racist. The media have reacted with the ‘Right2Know‘ campaign.

There are many in the South African media who remember the days when the state banned access to information to protect their own interests. In those days the ‘interests’ were the state’s suppression of basic human rights. It was called ‘apartheid’.

It is quite simple: This bill is expected to be presented for a vote at 2.00pm CAT. If it’s passed (and it looks like it will), South Africa will lose ‘freedom of the press’ from its constitution; and it will cease to be a democracy.

**Late addendum: the bill was passed. The Business Day explains what happened, and where the fight for the freedom of press goes now

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