December 17, 2018

Press Freedom

South Africa

Proposed Legislation Bodes Ill for South Africa Press

H.E. Jacob Zuma
President
Office of the President
Private Bag X83/ X1000
Union Buildings, Government Avenue
Pretoria 0001
Republic of South Africa
Fax: (011.27.12) 323.8246

Your Excellency:

We write to add our voice to the chorus of concern regarding legislation now before the South African parliament proposing restrictions on press freedom unprecedented in the new South Africa.

As you know, the proposed Protection of Information Bill would replace laws in force since 1982. The source of our concern is language proposed by Security Minister Siyabonga Cwel — language so broad that it would criminalize the legitimate work of investigative journalists and, in so doing, hide government officials from accountability to the nation.

Under the proposed bill, officials would be given wide authority to declare virtually any public or commercial data secret or, in some other sense, “protected” according to a definition of “national interest” suitable to the moment. And they could do so without the requirement of explanation to anyone.

Furthermore, the language places a vague but consequential responsibility for “public interest” on journalists. A journalist found guilty of breeching the “public interest” could face up to 25 years in jail.

Debate on the new legislation is happening simultaneously with a proposal from your party, the African National Congress, to establish a Media Appeals Tribunal that would issue unspecified sanctions for complaints against the press. As our colleagues at the Committee to Protect Journalists have pointed out, exactly this kind of regulatory agency has been used across Africa as a cover for political censorship, with terrible effects for democracy in those countries.

Since the end of the apartheid era 20 years ago, South Africa has distinguished itself by the growth of an assertive and professional independent press. But the proposals now before the nation bode ill for our South African colleagues. We urge you, as chief executive and head of the ANC, to make clear your opposition to any idea that would check the right of professional reporters to do their jobs and hold public officials accountable for their actions.

Respectfully yours,

Kevin McDermott
Jeremy Main
Co-chairs, Freedom of the Press Committee

cc’s:

H.E. Ebrahim Rasool
Ambassador of South Africa to the U.S.A.
Embassy of the Republic of South Africa
3051 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington , DC 20008
Fax: (202) 265.1607

Ambassador Baso Sangqu
Permanent Representative
Permanent Mission of the Republic of South Africa
to the United Nations
333 East 38th Street
New York , NY 10016
Fax: (212) 692.2498

H.E. Donald Gips
U.S. Ambassador to South Africa
Embassy of the United States of America
877 Pretorius Street
Arcadia, Pretoria
South Africa
Fax: (011. 27.12) 342.2299

South African Press Association
Cotswold House, Greenacres Office Park
Victory Park,
Johannesburg
South Africa
E-mail: comms@sapa.org.za
Fax: (011.27.11) 782.1587/ 88