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May 3 – World Press Freedom Day

SA National Editors’ Forum Press Statement: South Africa celebrates Press Freedom Day under a cloud

As the South African media celebrates Press Freedom Day – May 3, the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Windhoek Declaration which calls on states in Africa to uphold and maintain press freedom – journalists in the country are facing an erosion of press freedom.

Parliament is pressing ahead with the Protection of Information Bill which when enacted will enable national, provincial or local governments to declare secret a wide range of information which if published could result in the person responsible for the publication, an editor, journalist or a citizen, being imprisoned for a period which in some instances could be for up to 25 years. The current deadline date for this Bill is June 24, 2011.

The Bill gives the Minister of State Security excessive powers to declare information secret. It also contains a clause empowering the authorities to maintain secrecy over what information has been declared protected, or secret, so that a journalist, or an individual, who gains access to that information will not know that its publication could be a criminal offence.
Parliament is also dealing with other bills which if enacted will also restrict press freedom. In addition, the ruling African National Congress is planning to request parliament to investigate the setting up of a Media Appeals Tribunal which journalists believe will result in a mechanism which could be used to exercise control over the press and the information it gathers and publishes. The proposal is directly related to the print media and is not intended to apply to broadcasters, according to statements made by the ANC.

Journalists have condemned these developments, pointing out that they are likely to offend against the media freedom principles in the South African Constitution. These developments have been accompanied by unbridled criticism of the press by government politicians and officials – one of the factors that led the New York-based world freedom monitor, Freedom House, to downgrade South Africa from a country with a free press to one rated “partly free” – only one stage removed from a rating of “not free”.

During the run-up to the May 18 local government elections, the media in general has been identified as “the opposition” by leading figures in the ruling alliance. Making the media out to be the enemy contributes to creating the kind of hostile environment where journalists and photographers are seen as legitimate targets for harassment, assault or other repressive actions, and also creates fertile ground for self-censorship.

Freedom of expression is fundamental to the realisation of all the other rights enshrined in the South African constitution. It needs to be treasured, defended and exercised responsibly.

Sanef would also like to draw attention to the fact that SA photographer Anton Hammerl remains in custody somewhere in Libya after his detention by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi 29 days ago. During 2011, 16 journalists have been killed. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists records – four journalists were killed in Libya, three in Iraq, two in Bahrain, one in Egypt, one in Pakistan, one in Mexico, one in the Philippines, one in Yemen, one in Tunisia and one in Vietnam.

Sanef urges the SA government to redouble its efforts to effect Hammerl’s release.