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Death by Paper

by Mungo Adonis / 06.08.2010

Welcome to 1984, ou boet. Have you heard of the POI? And we’re not talking about those flaming tennis balls hippies like to swing around at trance parties. The Protection of Information Bill, or POI, may sound like an innocuous Thai food ingredient but it’s actually pretty damn sinister. This proposed new legislation by government has been getting media practitioners’ backs up for a while now yet the general public seem to be largely apathetic to government’s attempts to turn back the clock to an era of governmental secrecy and detention without trial. Just ask Sunday Times journalist, Mzilikazi Wa Afrika about his recent brush with the law

See, the government has proposed the POI and an attendant parliamentary media tribunal that can classify, obfuscate and deny any information deemed as contrary to the “national interest”, including “all matters relating to the advancement of the public good” and “the pursuit of justice, democracy, economic growth, free trade, a stable monetary system and sound international relations”. It also covers the “the protection and preservation of all things owned or maintained for the public by the State.” (Exactly. Huh?)

Under these vague directives, the government can impose self-regulating censorship on all kinds of information it deems to be unfit for public consumption, effectively criminalising investigative journalism. If journalists contravene these classifications (the designation of which, by the way, can be delegated to “subordinate staff members”, they are subject to extensive jail time (up to 25 years) without the option of a fine.

If all those quotation marks and newspeak is getting you down, here’s the nutshell: if this Bill passes, freedom of the press is screwed. Society’s ability to “speak truth to power” and keep tabs on government is greatly reduced and we move away from the central pillars of our constitution and open, democratic society. Pretty much everything that Biko, Hani, Sobukwe, Thambo, Sisulu, Mandela and countless others struggled for. At the time of writing, its being thrashed out by the Portfolio Committee but it’s looking scarily close to being greenlit. The implications, of course, will be that government’s actions, commercial and otherwise, will be protected by thick, cotton-woolly layers of legislature. While journalists attempting to expose coruption and the large scale looting of state coffers will be criminalised.

I feel a bit sheepish defending the right to free speech since I only use mine for writing about Lindsay Lohan’s panties. But what if I want to write about Bheki Cele’s Armani briefs and how they, may have, hypothetically, been bought with siphoned funds? Nay! This will not pass! I will defend my right to air Cele’s, and any other politician’s dirty undies, to the death!

Certain publications haven’t been doing the cause any favours with sloppy fact-checking, blatant sensationlism and downright criminal dealings. It is vital as all fuck that the press jack up their game and make sure that they are as morally and legally unassailable as possible. Judging from conversations on talk shows and general water-cooler talk, there seems to be an alarming degree of public support for the bill.

Yes, us media bottom-feeders are usually scummy misanthropes with terrible fashion sense, but the POI represents more than a hate-your-neighbourhood-journo tea party. It is a fundamentally unconstitutional attempt to muzzle the media and block the relay of contentious information to the public. While it represents a good opportunity for us as the press to relook at our practices and regulations, it is also an insidious plan to undermine your, our peeps’, constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of information.

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