SOUTH AFRICA: Bishops warn media law would restrict press freedom

September 2, 2010

Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops in South Africa have urged the government to withdraw and redraft a proposed media law that critics say would allow authorities to classify virtually any official information as secret.

"We believe that the bill violates the spirit of openness and accountability that is so necessary to underpin the constitution's provisions on good governance, essential for a healthy democracy," said South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier in an Aug. 31 statement.

Napier was active in the struggle against apartheid and said that there would be practically no right of appeal against rulings under the law, as any appeal would be processed by the same people who made the original decision.

"We certainly do not want government to take us back to the oppressive practices of yesteryear, against which our common struggle was launched," said the cardinal.

Separately, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa warned that the draft law on protection of information threatens to undermine rights including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, "to which we as South Africans subscribed when our elected representatives adopted our constitution in 1996."

In an article published in the Cape Times newspaper, Makgoba said, "What is notable about the Protection of Information Bill as it currently stands is that it seeks to punish not lies or incorrect information ... but rather truthful information based on official documents."

A campaign called Right2know aimed at stopping the secrecy bill seen as a major threat to hard-won freedom was held on Aug. 31 at Cape Town's St. George's Anglican Cathedral, where South Africans rallied against apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.

Those who oppose the proposed law say that in its current form investigative journalists could be prosecuted and face a prison sentence of up to 25 years for reporting on government information.

"Tamper with press freedom, and you tamper with the freedom of every citizen to receive and impart information and ideas," said Makgoba, who is archbishop of Cape Town. "We cannot draw a line around press freedom, restricting the rights of journalists, without limiting the rights of all of us."

Napier said that while Catholic bishops accept that some degree of restriction of information is, "both legitimate and necessary," the bishops had grave misgivings about the way this would be done if the proposal becomes law. He said the measure risks entrenching a culture of non-accountability and non-transparency among state officials at all levels.

"The definition of national interest and national security are so broad that they could be used to keep secret matters that ought by right to be accessible to the public," said Napier, who heads the diocese of Durban and was speaking for the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference.

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