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Raymond Louw, pictured above, says the press council may be shut down if a proposed South African bill is passed. (Credit: PressCouncil.org.Za)

As iMediaEthics recently reported, laws proposed in South Africa may lead to the closure of the South African Press Council and Ombudsman office. But that law isn’t the Protection of Information bill, as Africa News reported.

After our email request for further information, press council chairman Raymond Louw explained by e-mail to iMediaEthics that the Protection of Information bill won’t affect the ombudsman’s office. It is the proposal from the African National Congress (ANC) that is problematic and may result in closure by establishing a media tribunal to handle complaints about the print media.

While the Protection of Information bill, which is set to be passed by June 11, may leave the ombudsman office in place,  “there is no question of legislation being contemplated or passed that will lead to the closure of the Press Council and Press Ombudsman system,” Louw wrote.

Africa News Correction?

“Africa News confused” the Protection of Information bill with the ANC”s proposal to look into creating a media tribunal, Louw explained. iMediaEthics is writing to Africa News asking for a correction.  iMediaEthics cited that report in our article on the new media laws in South Africa and is clarifying our earlier report to indicate that there are two separate pieces of potential legislation.

The legislation that may close the ombudsman office is an ANC proposal to create the Media Appeals Tribunal. The proposed media tribunal would deal with media complaints, but not complaints against broadcast media.

Louw explained that the press council thinks the proposal may be a result of the South African press’s “hard hitting stories about government mismanagement, corruption within and beyond government by officials and politicians, extravagant life-styles of cabinet ministers, etc.”

“These stories have embarrassed the ruling party which wants to set up this statutory body with teeth — some suggestions have included jail sentences for journalists and heavy fines for newspapers for publishing material which offends against a code so far undefined,” Louw wrote.

The proposal, if enacted, might be able to silence journalists and make the press council ineffective, Louw explained.  If the tribunal is created, the council thinks that South African press “would withdraw their voluntary participation in the ombudsman’s self-regulatory process and the ombudsman’s office would collapse.

But, Louw wrote that both “journalists and the [South African] National Editors’ Forum” see that to lead to the ending of the ombudsman and press council because there would be no incentive for journalists to sign up for both regulation in the council and the tribunal.

The South African Press Council, its appeals panel and  the ombudsman are all “self-regulatory” bodies and govern over print media in South Africa. According to the press council’s website, “more than 640 publications” voluntarily abide by the council’s press code.

The Protection of Information Bill

The Protection of Information bill, which Louw stated is currently in committee, would give the government control over what is published.  For example, the government will be able to punish journalists or block stories for publishing “secret” or “sensitive” information, which the government will categorize itself.

Louw added that the press council and ombudsman have joined with the South African National Editors’ Forum, the Freedom of Expression Institute, the South African Chapter of the Media Institute and various lawyers in criticizing the bill.

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The main thrust of the council’s criticism is that the bill could violate both freedom of expression and media, which are granted in the South African constitution, according to Louw. However, the press council has “largely left the criticism to the other organisations” since the council focuses on the actions of the press and not the government.

Louw commented that “A serious deficiency [in the proposed bill] is the lack of a publication in the public interest defence.”  Also, the bill creates a “double jeopardy” situation, in that journalists are barred from publishing secret or sensitive information without knowing if that information is secret or sensitive.

Louw expressed concern for the lack of transparency in the parliament.  He wrote there have been amendments to the bill added in a committee but the council doesn’t know what they are.

And, the council fears that journalists’ concerns about the bill will be ignored and the bill will be passed. Louw also commented that journalists aren’t able to attend each Parliament meeting while committees analyze the bill, so journalists are left out of the loop.

 The Protection of Information Bill

The press council and ombudsman have joined with the South African National Editors’ Forum, the Freedom of Expression Institute, the South African Chapter of the Media Institute and various lawyers in criticizing the bill, Louw noted.

The main thrust of the council’s criticism is that the bill could violate both freedom of expression and media, which are granted in the South African constitution, according to Louw. However, the press council has “largely left the criticism to the other organisations” since the council focuses on the actions of the press and not the government.

Some effects the bill could have include blocking publication of certain stories about government and jailing journalists for reporting on “secret or sensitive information as defined by the authorities.”

Louw commented that “A serious deficiency [in the proposed bill] is the lack of a publication in the public interest defence.”  Also, the bill creates a “double jeopardy” situation, in that journalists are barred from publishing secret or sensitive information without knowing if that information is secret or sensitive.

Louw expressed concern for the lack of transparency in the parliament.  He wrote there have been amendments to the bill added in a committee but the council doesn’t know what they are.

And, the council fears that journalists’ concerns about the bill will be ignored and the bill will be passed. Louw also commented that journalists aren’t able to attend each Parliament meeting while committees analyze the bill, so journalists are left out of the loop.

UPDATE: 05/10/2011 1:10 PM EST: Kent Mensah of AfricaNews.com responded to iMediaEthics e-mail inquiry.  Mensah noted that AfricaNews posted a “rejoinder”  from Right2Know campaign national coordinator Murray Hunter about the error in AfricaNews’ original report.  AfricaNews had conflated the two media bills currently being proposed.

The rejoinder notes that there are two separate proposals – one to create a Media Appeals Tribunal (effectively ending the press council) and one called the Protection of Information bill to make certain information secret. Mensah added that he would update the original story to link to the correction.

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