Press Freedom: President Zuma Urged To Block Draconian Media Bill

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[Global: Op-Ed]

President Jacob Zuma

 

May 12, 2013

His Excellency President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma


The Presidency


Union Buildings, 
Private Bag X1000 


Pretoria, 0001

Dear President Zuma:

We are writing to express our concern about South Africa's Protection of State Information Bill and join with civil society organizations in your country in urging you to send the bill back to the National Assembly for further revision when it comes to you for confirmation.

The bill, which was introduced in 2008 to counter espionage and protect national security, has caused great concern among South African citizens and their supporters who have backed the struggle for democracy and a free and vibrant media. While we are pleased that the bill has undergone extensive revisions in the past two years, we are concerned that the draft that was passed by parliament on April 25 still falls short of the standards set by your country's constitution. South Africa serves as an example of democracy and good governance not only to the rest of Africa, but to the world.

The bill has also come under criticism from several civil society and press freedom organizations, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which is a close ally of your own party; the African National Congress; and the Right2Know campaign, which represents more than 400 local organizations. These organizations believe that the language of the proposed legislation is wide open to interpretation and abuse by officials.

Cosatu has called for a "broader public interest defense for whistle-blowing." The bill affords limited protection to whistleblowers in connection with disclosures revealing "criminal activity." This could discourage whistleblowers from contacting the media with information. Cosatu has also requested that you refer the bill to South Africa's Constitutional Court for review before you consider signing it into law this week.

The Right2Know campaign has identified several problematic aspects of the bill. The bill allows for any journalist who discloses classified information "with the purpose of revealing corruption or other criminal activity" to be charged with espionage and other offenses. Journalists could receive up to 25-year jail terms for these offenses. The campaign warns that these "draconian sentences" will have a chilling effect on anyone in possession of information in the public interest.

Mr. President, an independent and unfettered media is a valuable ally in any government's efforts to root out corruption and improve service to citizens. In September 2011, at the Open Government Partnership, you highlighted your administration's promotion of citizen engagement and participation with these words: "We pride ourselves on having freedom of expression and media freedom that are enshrined in the constitution. This makes ours a vibrant democracy with a healthy exchange of ideas in society."

We believe that the passage of the Protection of State Information Bill would undermine your goal. We ask that you send this bill back for further revision, thus ensuring that apartheid-era secrecy is replaced by a law that is in keeping with South Africa's hard-won constitutional values. Your leadership on this matter would send a strong signal that South Africa can balance its needs for state security while respecting human rights and media freedom.

Yours sincerely,Joel SimonExecutive DirectorThe Committee to Protect Journalists CC: Lakela Kaunda, Private Office of the PresidentMac Maharaj, Spokesman for the PresidentZanele Mngadi, Communications Officer of the PresidentKgalema Motlanthe, Deputy PresidentMalebo Sibiya, Office of the Deputy PresidentPansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, African Commission on Human and Peoples' RightsGaston Barban, Canadian High Commissioner to South AfricaRené Dinesen, Danish Ambassador to South AfricaKari Maren Bjørnsgaard, Norwegian Ambassador to South AfricaAnders Hagelberg, Swedish Ambassador to South AfricaBirgitta Ohlsson, Swedish EU Affairs MinisterCarl Bildt, Swedish Minister for Foreign AffairsVirginia E. Palmer, U.S. Embassy in South AfricaNicola Brewer, British High Commissioner to South Africa 

 

 

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