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May 3 – World Press Freedom Day

SANEF statement on World Press Freedom Day

On World Press Freedom Day we celebrate the role of the news media around the world in sustaining democracy, fighting tyranny and enriching public life. We also remind ourselves of the many ways in which that role is imperiled.

South Africa remains a beacon of press freedom on the African continent, but that status has come under real threat from new legislative proposals and from hostile political rhetoric, and from the conduct of some senior state officials; our pride must be tempered by vigilance.

Journalists, civil society groups, and trades unions are united in opposition to important aspects of the Protection of State Information Bill, which in its current form imposes harsh prison sentences on anyone who discloses classified state secrets.

Without the insertion of a clause protecting from prosecution those who publish such secrets in the public interest – in other words to reveal serious wrongdoing – and other important modifications, the bill is a danger not just to press freedom, but to democracy.

We are also working to ensure that threats to introduce state regulation of the press are not realized, and that broadly agreed ethical standards are upheld without the adoption of measures that would chill our climate of robust debate and tough reporting. The recommendations of the Press Freedom Commission chaired by Pius Langa, and the review of the Press Council and the Press Code conducted by the press ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, are important contributions to that work.

In contrast to the concerns raised by the Protection of State Information Bill we are pleased to be able to point to a growing body of South African jurisprudence that not only asserts the constitutional protection accorded media freedom, but that is building on that foundation a legal architecture that secures us against pre-publication censorship, recognizes the need to protect sources, and lends enforceability to laws guaranteeing freedom of information.

Of course press freedom requires more than good laws. It can only flourish in an environment where openness is cherished, where journalists work free from harassment, and diverse voices are able to be heard.

Across our continent that environment is threatened, and sometimes almost entirely absent.

We deplore the bomb attacks on This Day newspaper in Nigeria, and the threats of violence against other media companies by the militant group Boko Haram, the jailing of local and foreign journalists in Ethiopia on spurious security charges, and the persistent legal harassment of journalists in Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and other countries.

Press freedom and the quality of democracy are intricately linked, and we celebrate and guard our own not in isolation from the rest of the continent, but in solidarity with a cause that crosses all its borders.

Issued by the SA National Editors’ Forum (SANEF)