One wouldn’t be mistaken in believing that there is a battle being waged between the media and our ruling government.The South African media has been on the defensive this week trying to expose how damaging and crippling the proposed Protection of Information Bill could be to the press, journalists and South Africa. First published for comment in March 2008, the bill looks to curtail what journalists can publish. Certain information, considered classified by the government, will no longer to able to be published by the media. This could range from information regarding commercial government contracts and awarded tenders to state-owned enterprises and state entities. Journalists could face jail time of up to 25 years for publishing protected information. A proposed Media Tribunal would also be set up to monitor, regulate and chastise the general media. Because you know, they’re really quite naughty.
But if you follow the bouncing ball the implications of this bill land close to home. The ANC doesn’t want certain information being published by the press that will ultimately land on our doors steps. Bluntly put: the ANC would rather we remained ignorant about certain issues. The journalists opposing this bill are not only doing so for the sake of their profession, they are also fighting on our behalf. They are fighting what is essentially our fight. Which South African could honestly say that they would be happy knowing less about the ruling party? Who would want to have the information they receive in the papers be filtered, restricted and controlled?
In 2008 President Zuma accused the media of acting as if they were in opposition to the ANC. Maybe, when all is considered, there is a piece of truth in his accusation. The ANC faces no real opposition which could threaten its position as the ruling party. Without that legitimate opposition the press has come to fill at least part of the void that exists. They provide the enquiries, criticism and analysis that seems to be lacking from the other political parties which can be found on the ballot every five years. It’s not a role that should have been thrust upon them, but one which nonetheless requires fulfilment.
The support and pressure behind the bill says a lot about the mindset and objectives of the ruling party. It suggests that the lines between the government and the state are becoming increasingly blurred. The bill looks to protect information which is of value to the state as well as safeguard the national interest. But what is in the national interest is that the ruling party is held accountable and faces stringent and unrelenting scrutiny from the press. What is often forgotten is that the ANC’s rule is never meant to be treated as eternal. Democracy is healthiest when governments are transient and can be challenged and overthrown by an opposition. Even though the ANC’s rule seems cemented, it stills needs to be treated as though it is transient and not a permanent fixture. Therefore the national interests and the best interests of the state need to be carefully dissected from the ANC’s interests. Undoubtably the recent embarrassment regarding the irregular awarding of tenders has stung the ruling party.
Is it in the ANC’s interest to have the public know about these sort of occurrences? No.
Is it in the public’s interest? Most certainly.
I am doubtful that this bill will ever come to fruition in its current state. I am optimistic enough to believe that our Constitution, advocacy groups and citizens will prevail. While the bill may be altered and revised, it has already exposed the inner beliefs and desires of the ruling party. We’ve had a glimpse of how the ANC perceives the media and South African citizens. And while it is worrying, it has also been rather enlightening.