SANEF on World Press Freedom Day

The SA National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) issued a media release stating that 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.

SANEF deplores 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.

The Right2Know Campaign aims to ensure everyone living in South Africa is free to access and to share information. This vision will never be realised without a strong, critical, well-funded media sector, that is free from government and corporate control.

Thursday 3 May 2012 – the 19th commendation of the United Nations’ Press Freedom Day – is an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing struggle to realise that vision.

Despite savage cost-cutting in the newsroom that has left fewer journalists carrying a greater workload and greatly strengthened the hand of spin doctors in the public and private sector, critical investigative journalism continues to exist in South Africa. A broad popular coalition has mobilised against legislative threats such as the Secrecy Bill, and the judiciary holds strong against attacks on journalistic independence.

Yet we cannot claim to live in a society in which the right to access and share information through the media is realised by all.

Media are a public good – a constitutional right that is the key to the realisation and defence of other rights.

In recent years the print media has come under attack from elements of the ruling party wanting to introduce statutory regulation via a Media Appeals Tribunal accountable to Parliament. In this context the Right2Know Campaign welcomes the final report released by the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) on 25 April 2012.

While many of the details need to be debated further, the PFC recommendations may help strengthen our non-statutory regulatory system. We hope that the ANC General Secretary’s initial welcoming of the PFC recommendations is a sign that the ruling party will abandon its call for statutory regulation of the print media.