South Africa: Freedom of Speech? Depends what you want to say…

“Two Laws to rule them all.
Two Laws to find them
Two Laws to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them.”
Adapted from Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

There are two proposed laws that could change the face of one of the fundamental human rights we as South Africans enjoy, forever. The Right to Freedom of Expression… Here are the laws:

Films and Publications Amendment Bill
Very few (if any) South African journalists, cartoonists and writers are not enraged by the prospect of the new draconian Films and Publications Amendment Bill, the parliamentary review of which will (quote ironically) coincide with World Press Freedom Day (2 May 2008).

The Act, which could be passed as early as June this year, is intended to enable more effective control over sexual content, content that could incite violence and war, or promote hatred against any identifiable group characteristic. Nearly all material (news, adverts, movies, radio programmes, speeches, articles) will have to be approved by government before being allowed to go into print, on the air or on the shelves. The problem with the Act is that it could be interpreted in many different ways and that it leaves the door open for government to manipulate what we write and what you hear.

The Protection of Information Bill
In contradiction with the preamble to this Bill, which states that the aim is to “promote the free flow of information within an open and democratic society without compromising the security of the Republic”, the bill will not only hamper the collection and the disclosure of information, but also reward those who do with lengthy jail sentences.

To give you an idea: Any head of a state body, or duly authorized delegate of a state body, has the power to classify a document, a record or a non-physical item, as confidential, secret and top secret. If a writer (or anybody else for that matter) discloses such classified information, they can be jailed for up to five years or even for up to twenty five years if the disclosure is deemed to be “hostile activity defences”. No exemption is mentioned for those who use such classified documents to expose corruption or the abuse of power within government.

Further limitations include finding and reporting on ‘sensitive information’, which is an umbrella kind of category that encompasses a range of motherhood statements, such as ‘national interest’ and ‘pursuit of justice’ and a couple of tangibles, such as ‘security plans’ and ‘information related to criminal investigations’

Two Laws, Better Control
Collectively, the restrictions imposed by these two laws, are worse than was the case during the Apartheid era. For instance, government could (ab)use the proposed Acts to further diminish the already poor level of transparency in government, and prevent journalists from properly investigating and reporting on the Seven Scourges of Government: bribery, corruption, connections to organized crime, abuse of power, abuse of public funds, and the misappropriation of funds. As a journalist, they can throw the book at you: (1) promoting hatred or inciting violence against the identifiable group called government or (2) finding and reporting sensitive information and disclosing confidential information.

It would be more than just a little naïve to assume that the South African government won’t use the opportunity represented by the Acts to improve ‘public relations’. Over the years, the powers that be have proven that they have an aversion to public scrutiny – both from a professional and a personal perspective. Their responses to the criticisms incurred have – by and large – been relatively immature. And, their refusal – in many instances – too heed the outcome of press investigations or exposes where honourable members of parliament were concerned, may even be interpreted as a desire to obscure the incidence of the Seven Scourges in the government of the day.

Let us use a well-known example to prove the point: Zuma was highly infuriated after the appearance of a Zapiro cartoon depicting him with a shower on his head during his rape trial (an image that has stuck since then). The cartoon, which was born from Zuma’s own claim to have showered to diminish the risk of AIDS after having had intercourse with the HIV-infected plaintiff, saw Zuma initially suing the cartoonist for R20 million – an amount that has subsequently been reduced to R 2 million. If the new Acts were in place at that time, the government would have had the wherewithal to prevent the publication of the cartoon, to withhold information from the press and to censor any reference to his trial before it would be allowed to go into print.

Lessons from Abroad
This is how things started in Zimbabwe. Mugabe hates being made fun of, he hates being opposed, he hates being shown in a bad light and he hates being depicted as anything other than heroic. This delusion of grandeur led to him gradually emasculating the press and robbing the Zimbabwean population of their right to honest information and their right to freedom of speech. Now, in Zimbabwe, Mugabe controls every aspect of the media. He filters all information – not unlike the Films and Publications Amendment Bill we are about to implement. He jails those that investigate and report on the grounds of endangering national security – not unlike The Protection of Information Bill.

Soon, the internet will be targeted as well – in fact, it is already in progress. If a similar draconian approach applies, we could find ourselves in the same situation as the Chinese population. The Chinese government employs filters to the internet in order to prevent certain search terms from producing results. Hence, if you had to search in China for Tiananmen Square, the results will come up with zilch, nil, nada, and zero.

To conclude
When these two South African Bills are passed, information will be selectively disseminated to the public. You will only read what the government allows you to read. Am I being neurotic? Perhaps, but when guarding one’s Rights, a dash of Neuroticism is always appropriate. The imminent restrictions should be a warning signal.

We still have some Freedom of Speech – but this offer is valid for a limited period only.
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2 Responses

  1. i need this for school and i dont really understand it but this site was a great help 😀

  2. Wow thanks for the heads up. as a writer dedicated to freedom (for any kind), this is really terrifying. But it should never stop us fighting.

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