Thursday, 7 July 2011

Archbishop joins new Press Freedom Commission

At the nomination of the South African Council of Churches, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba has agreed to serve as a Commissioner on the Press Freedom Commission launched today at the initiative of Print Media South Africa (PMSA) and South African National Editors Forum (SANEF). The PFC will be chaired by Justice Pius Langa, and, over the next 6 to 8 months is tasked with reviewing various forms of regulation and best practice, in relation to the print media. Dr Makgoba will serve as representative of the faith communities.

Further details of the Commission can be found at http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/2011/07/07/press-freedom-commission-launched

Dr Makgoba has previously supported the Right to Know Campaign in its opposition to the Protection of Information Bill. Below is an article by him published in the Cape Times on 31 August 2010 (slightly amended).

‘The Truth will Set Us Free’

The Protection of Information Bill now before Parliament and the ANC’s proposed Media Appeals Tribunal threaten to undermine the family of rights – ranging from freedom of expression, to political rights, to freedom of religion – to which we as South Africans subscribed when our elected representatives adopted our Constitution in 1996.

The truth, so the Gospel assures Christians, will set us free. Yet what is notable about the Protection of Information Bill as it currently stands is that it seeks to punish not lies or incorrect information about what our government doing in our name, but rather truthful information based on official documents.

No one contests the need for the Government to keep secret strictly-defined categories of information, the disclosure of which could threaten our national security – for example, troop movements at a time of conflict. But that is not what this Bill is about – as the General Council of the Bar has pointed out, the quite separate Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 already protects information which “genuinely requires protection from disclosure” and can legitimately be withheld in terms of the Constitution.

No, what the new Bill seeks to do is to give large numbers of government officials the power to classify information as "confidential", "secret", or "top secret" under the rubric that it would contravene a vaguely-defined “national interest.” Even commercial information could be declared secret, which – following media exposes of the activities of “tenderpreneurs” – invites the question: why?

President Zuma has told us that the Media Appeals Tribunal “is meant to protect South Africans, rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban.” He also says that professions such as architects, doctors, engineers and lawyers have mechanisms similar to what the ANC is proposing.

Yet there is a fundamental difference between those professions and the writing and printing of information and opinions in a democracy – the latter is protected by Section 16 of the Constitution. This states that: “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes (a) freedom of the press and other media; (b) freedom to impart information or ideas; (c) freedom of artistic creativity; and (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

Those rights are not limited to journalists – we all have them and we are all subject to the same limitations on them. One of those limitations is imposed on us by the Constitution, which prohibits narrowly-defined categories of speech and writing, such as propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or certain types of hate speech. Another limitation is imposed on us by the law against slander and defamation.

Apart from those kinds of restrictions, we all have the right to think, to say and to write what we like, and to print our views. Similarly, under Section 19 of the Constitution, every citizen has political rights, which include the right to campaign for a political party or cause. And under Section 15 of the Constitution, “everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.” That is the right which guarantees us freedom of worship, and – again apart from those tightly-defined limitations – to say what we like from the pulpits of our churches and in our mosques, temples and synagogues.

The Constitution and the law do not require those of us who write, proclaim and publish our views – whether journalists or not – to get both sides of the story. Nor do they require politicians to present the views of their opponents, nor preachers to advocate the ideas of other denominations or faiths.

The fact that journalists have adopted a code of conduct in which they commit themselves to getting both sides of a story, and to basing their comments upon the facts, is admirable, but it is not a requirement of the Constitution or the law. It is, rather, the product of pressure from governments over 50 years, of the recognition by journalists that large, established newspapers have more power than small-circulation printed works, and of the desire of many journalists to hold themselves to higher standards in their publications than average members of the public.

What is a Media Appeals Tribunal meant to do to journalists that the law and their own self-regulation does not do already? Just as in other areas of our democracy, the pressure of public opinion can be brought to bear on popular institutions. Journalists acknowledge that they make mistakes, and that apologies and retractions do not have as much visibility and force as breaking news stories Their acknowledgement was reflected by the prominent front-page apology to Matthews Phosa and the ANC in last Sunday’s City Press.

Would a Media Appeals Tribunal fine journalists? Jail them? Ban them from writing, for a period or forever? What about church journalists or religious communicators? Why should they be permitted freedoms other journalists do not have?

As preachers, we exercise a right to speak out prophetically in sermons, in pastoral letters read to tens of thousands of people in churches across the country on Sundays, and in church media. Neither the Constitution nor the law require religious institutions to subject their clergy to codes of conduct. If the Government is going to act against journalists who subscribe to a code of conduct, why not against preachers, who don’t? Will our communication also be gagged and our utterances criminalised if we reveal information or express the kinds of opinion which have made the ruling party so angry with the media?

Tamper with press freedom, and you tamper with the freedom of every citizen to receive and impart information and ideas. Tamper with freedom of expression, and you tamper with political rights. Tamper with the rights of religious institutions – including the rights of Christian churches to proclaim the Gospel as they see fit, in the pulpit or in print – and you destroy freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.

Our freedoms are indivisible. We cannot draw a line around press freedom, restricting the rights of journalists, without limiting the rights of all of us.

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