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South Africa's press ombudsman would be replaced if a proposed media control law is passed. The South African Times newspaper reported that the law also "makes it a crime punishable by 25 years in prison to communicate top secret information." (Credit: Press Council)

Will a proposed South African media law make it easier for propaganda to get in the newspapers and to give government control over the media?

African National Congress (ANC) reportedly is trying to pass a bill which will re-define how the media is regulated in South Africa, AfricaNews.com reported.  The congress is a national liberation movement and a political party.

The bill would “replace the current self-regulating mechanism through the Press Ombudsman instituted in 1996 to adjudicate breaches of the code.”  Instead, the bill would create a Media Appeals Tribunal, a “statutory body” to handle media issues.

The bill’s backers say that current media regulation isn’t working.  Opponents see the tribunal’s creation as a way to give parliament some control over media and hamper press freedoms.

South African Press Council chairman Raymond Louw also commented that the law would inhibit press freedom as well and a way to get propaganda in the media. Likewise, The Freedom of Expression Institute called the bill “fundamentally flawed.”

But, ANC communications chief Nkenke Kekane reportedly countered that “We are not interested in closing down publications, in muzzling the media or in embedded journalism; what we need is accurate reporting, and not distortion.”

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The ANC claims that the current system is ineffective because it has the media acting as both “a referee and a player at the same time,” as the press ombudsman is a former journalist.

The South African Times newspaper reported that another law proposed by the ANC, the Protection of Information bill also may restrict South African media.  That proposal “makes it a crime punishable by 25 years in prison to communicate top secret information.”  According to the Times, the ANC won’t add a clause to the law permitting journalists to “publish classified information in the public interest.”

iMediaEthics has written to the Press Council of South Africa and will update with any response.  We have also written to the ANC for comment and more information about the bill and will update with any response.

See more on this story here, including information from an e-mail interview with the press council’s chairman, Raymond Louw.

UPDATE: 5/9/2011 10:03 AM EST: Have updated and clarified that there are two bills being proposed. The Protection of Information bill is the one that would restrict publication of secret or sensitive information. A separate bill, also proposed by the ANC, may create a Media Appeals Tribunal, which the press council sees as a way to end the press council. Read more about this story here.

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