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Classified and Pacified

by Lynsey Chutel, illustration by Jason Bronkhorst / 01.09.2010

Ferial Haffajee looks like she’s about to bitchslap Jackson Mthembu! The media finally meets the ANC national spokesperson over the proposed Protection of Information Bill. This is the SABC’s attempt at an unbiased current affairs debate. But what it turns into is an opportunity for Mthembu to blatantly lie about the biggest threat to media and public freedom in South Africa. He swears the proposed bill won’t lead to censorship or the arrest of journalists. Even Zuma recently said commentators are over-reacting. But tell that to Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika and the pack of cops who dragged him to an Mpumulanga jail.

So what exactly is the ANC’s problem? Infighting at the government’s lapdog, officially referred to as the national broadcaster, has seen controversial, ballsy TV replaced with a string of lifestyle shows with B-list celebs that would cover the opening of an envelope if it happened on a red carpet. In the meantime, the news and current affairs department is trapped in the crossfire of Mbeki banning Zuma, then Zuma banning Mbeki and a whole lot of sticky editorial gagging which is about to get worse.

An email attachment called “Media – Transformation, Ownership and Diversity” has been doing the rounds lately. In it the ANC pats itself on the back for its “success” at the SABC! Its next muzzle project is clearly the print media.

While the rest of the world worries about the death of print thanks to fast and free online news, South African newspapers are about to be strangled by our own democracy! A paranoid government with corrupt tender deals to hide is a far bigger threat than the internet.

While we cringed and laughed at Malema’s attempt to humiliate BBC journalist Jonah Fisher, we missed the broader point. Julius was sending a message. No more free press in an open society. A few months down the line paranoia could very well become law. The Protection of Information Bill has morphed from a suggestion at the 2007 Polokwane conference to what could become a series of draconian laws. The brainchild of the Ministry of State Security, the bill was first tabled in 2008 because our already limited media “has more freedom than anyone else” according to Mthembu.

Because “some media reports don’t go down well with the ANC” (again Mthembu), if the bill becomes law, government will have the right to classify information at will. “Classified” will mean anything the government says it does. Hotel romps with taxpayer money? Classified. Tender deals awarded to a widely-girthed politician who owns four different ghost corporations? Classified.

Do journo student kids mortgaging themselves on tuition know what they’re letting themselves in for? That being a vigilant writer speaking truth to power may soon come with (SAT) – specially added jail time!

Publishing ‘classified’ information could get you up to 25 years. A life sentence. The average rapist, if convicted at all, gets around fifteen years. If the ‘Secrets Bill’ goes into effect journalists who release “classified information” will be locked up if they can’t prove their work has clear cut “public interest”. The State will decide what constitutes “public interest” of course! Sources, responsible for all those leaks that expose government corruption, will get three years. Bang. The added jail time is sure to dry up this vital information chain.

And just in case independent internal professional regulation of the media is not enough, the ANC is proposing a self-appointed tribunal to curb your journalistic enthusiasm. This bright idea was sparked in Polokwane in 2007, when media reportage of the ANC’s unholy anointing of a new leader (by Stalinist diktat) didn’t get the kind of coverage approved of by Africa’s oldest democratic movement. And of course that painting (the controversial artless one with the dead Mandela) added dung to the tribunal fire.

This is bleak. We’ve already given up on the SABC. The few decent newspapers left are becoming an endangered species. Bitch all you want about the media (journalists/ vultures/ drunkards), they go where you don’t want to. They shine a light. They keep audiences informed and governments in check.

Unless the Secrets Bill becomes law.

Illustration © Jason Bronkhorst.

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