SADC countries back tracking on media freedom

SADC countries back tracking on media freedom

Date: November 16, 2011
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While positive signals elsewhere in the continent show that governments are embracing principles of free access to information, Southern African Development Community (SADC) seem to be retrogressing. Namibia and South Africa, once beacons of media freedom in the region, are no longer conducive environments for the press, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world. Freedom House blames this on Egocentric political interests in the region.

The controversial Protection of Information Bill in South Africa dubbed as “Secrecy Bill” by critics is the most recent attack and cause of worry to the media industry in the region. Critics argue that the bill which has been in the public domain since 2010 is not only a threat to the media as it might be presumed but civil society organisations, the academia and members of the public in the country just to mention a few.

Responding to the development, Anton Harber Journalism Professor at Witwatersrand University, says that: “It is not just a battle for journalists and the media to do their job; it is a battle for citizens to be empowered by information and be able to assert their rights and aspirations. It is not just a battle for freedom of speech, but a fight to ensure our democracy is an open, participative and collaborative one, rather than a top-down authoritarian one.”

The bill which is currently being reviewed after Right2Know (a civil society coalition created to oppose the passing of the bill) and the opposition legislatures lambasted the ruling African National Congress (ANC) recently of wanting to use “clause 18” of the draft to force journalists to reveal to authorities sources who hand them classified information. Surprisingly, ANC is geared to pass this draconian bill after backing down its fervent call to establish Media Appeals Tribunal in January this year.

Similarly, Malawi’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party amended section 46 of the Penal Code and made it into law though undemocratic. The law empowers the Information Minister to shut down any newspaper that publishes information that s/he deems “contrary to the public interest.” And despite numerous petitions from within the country, region and world-over, Malawi president, Bingu Wa Mutharika, signed and effected the law in January this year. Critics believe that the law is meant to silence the newspaper industry which has been very critical on governance issues in the country.

Ironically, Malawi has been sitting on Access to Information Bill since it got drafted in 2003 due to political disinterest. The draft law currently gathering dust on government shelves aims to empower information seekers to access and obtain information with ease as opposed to the current situation.

Further, some media houses in the region continue to face the wrath of politically motivated decisions after their respective governments slapped them with advertising ban. According to Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), advertising ban is the most common strategy in the region by politicians to punish media houses that are critical on the conduct of the ruling elite on issues of governance, policy, human rights issue and rule of law just to mention a few. This mostly chokes operations of the affected media houses because governments are mostly among the biggest advertising clients in the region. Surprisingly, governments in the region ignore the fact that state revenues are public funds and it is uncalled-for to use such revenues to punish the independent media.

In countries such as Namibia, this has even become a policy, as is the case of Namibian Newspaper, which has been under such an advertising ban since 2002. Malawi’s Nation Publications Limited, one of the leading private media houses in the country is under advertising ban since last year for being critical to president Bingu wa Mutharika’s administration. Over the years, the practice has also been seen in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Colonial and draconian laws of defamation, libel and treason continue to muzzle on this fourth arm of government in the region. According to MISA, “in Lesotho and Swaziland, journalist and civic activists can be arrested under treason laws that guise political repression.”

However, one wonders why the ruling elite continue to come up with policies that contradict with core principles of most hard-won democracies in the region. Freedom of the press which extends to broadcasting is the most famous clause in most republic constitution in SADC yet the reality on the ground contradicts what this clause stipulates.
The Secrecy Bill if made into a law for instance will not only deny SA citizens their right to access and disseminate information but development as well. Imagine NGOs, researchers, academicians, the corporate world and members of the general public failing to conduct campaigns, research, business and any other activities because they cannot use or access “classified information” because of Protection of Information law?

Politicians in the region should bear in mind that laws such as newspapers ban and the proposed Secrecy Law “[do] not stay in the statute books only for one administration or one term of government”, says Ayesha Kajee, former executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute. “It stays well into the future…history has shown that repressive laws are not usually misused by the administration that passes them but rather by administrations into the future”. This calls on politicians to come-up with laws that are democratic and contribute to the greater common good. However there is hope.
Efforts by South Africa’s Right2Know (R2K) have shown that persistent spot checks on politicians can yield positive results. The grouping has been advocating for further review of Secrecy Bill since the ANC tabled it last year. R2K is also amongst the forces that stopped the ruling party from establishing the media tribunal, which critics believed was another threat to the media.

Numerous R2K campaigns, demonstrations and petitions with support from members of the public, politicians, academia and the media have seen the ANC moving back and forth in rewriting some of clauses of the bill. Delay in the process forces those who support suppression laws to rethink their motives. Other countries in the region ought to learn that establishing civil coalition groups like R2K when situations arise can yield positive results as it is being witnessed in SA. Seeking legal redress of draconian laws is another option that the media, civil society and concerned citizens should consider taking when situation arises. The prevailing hash conditions in the region calls for media practitioners to execute their duties ethically and responsibly so that the ruling elite do not take advantage of avoidable mistakes.

In contrast to SADC developments, Nigeria adopted a progressive freedom of information law in 2010 and Uganda passed an Access to Information Act in 2005. In 2010, Uganda debated the Whistle Blowers Protection Bill, which is aimed to create an enabling environment for citizens to freely disclose information on corrupt or improper conduct in public and private sectors.

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