Looking back at 2015: Is our media still free?

By Palesa Kobedi

Media freedom is one of the rights enacted in South Africa's Constitution.

However, government’s announcement of the Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Tribunal Appeals Bill sent shock waves through the media industry, which believes that its government’s way to control the media and punish those who speak against out the ruling party.

But let’s first understand exactly what these bills are all about?

Media Tribunal Appeals Bill

The ANC first announced the tribunal at the party's Polokwane conference in 2007.

It was however shelved after the party consulted with media organisations who were opposed to outside interference.

The party again announced during its national congress in October this year that it wants the media tribunal to be established soon.

Protection of State Information Bill or so-called Secrecy Bill:

The Bill was first introduced in 2008.

The Bill was meant to replace a piece of Apartheid-era legislation that governed the classification of state secrets.

Government wanted to create legislation that would protect state secrets but also uphold the constitutional principal of transparent governance.

It included a provision that would allow whistle-blowers to leak information that was in the public interest without fear of reprisal.

Editors and journalist are against the Bills lamenting that these Bills are making it increasingly difficult for them to do their work.

At a South African National Editors Forum event in commemoration of media freedom day on the 19th of October 2015, Journalist and editors in South Africa and other parts of Africa said that media industry is under attack.

South Africa journalist and editor Ferial Haffajee says it is becoming increasingly difficult for her to do her job.

Botswana journalist and editor Mpho Dibeela says the media environment is under constant attack in his country.

Mozambique Journalist and Editor Fernando Goncalves Goncalves says they "don't have serious, but occasional threats" against the media.

Bills rubbished 

In a wide-ranging interview with SABC Digital News ahead of the commemoration of "Black Wednesday" in 2015, Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe criticised the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal saying its "absolute rubbish to think that the Tribunal will help reduce the number of complaints against the media."

Thloloe says, "It's flawed reasoning to think that if you impose a media appeals Tribunal you will be able to reduce the number of complaints against the media, that is absolute rubbish. It's very flawed reasoning."

He adds, "Our own way of doing things is to try and educate journalist and make then understand the meaning of the Press Code and to adhere to that Press Code. We talk to journalists and we say to them make that Press Code part of your DNA. It's an educational process."

He also says, "For example, we have the courts today where thousands of people are sentenced everyday, but that has not reduced the number of crimes we have in the street. You need to go to the source of the problem and you don't go to the source of the problem by saying we will create a media appeals tribunal that’s rubbish."

"It's not only rubbish but it is also against the Constitution. A Constitution we fought hard to attain."

He however warns that the issue of accuracy is a serious problem because most of the complaints that he receives are from people who believe that journalists were not accurate in their reporting when they covered their story.

It still remains to be seen if the ANC will move ahead with its plan to sign into law the two Bills despite criticism from civil society, the media, and the public at large.