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South Africa moves ahead with bill to limit freedom of information

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Initially proposed in early 2010, the Protection of Information bill and a separate plan to create a Media Appeals Tribunal to punish journalists for errors in reporting were both shelved after the controversy over the two bills led the ruling African National Congress to shelve them for further study and consultation. But after several meetings, the bill has been reintroduced in parliament barring virtually the same activities, and civic activists, media organizations, and even the ANC’s own coalition partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, have cried foul once more.

“As it stands, this bill will restrict media freedom,” said COSATU’s spokesman, Patrick Craven, in a statement. “It will also severely limit the ability of organisations like ours to hold government accountable or to support government in working for a better life for all. The bill will drive a wedge between the state and the people it is supposed to serve.”

The current draft being voted on in parliament, clause by clause, would ban the acquisition and publication of documents classified as:

  • "Confidential," where publishing the information would be “harmful” to national security or to South Africa’s relations with other countries;
  • "Secret," where publishing the information may "endanger" national security or "jeopardise the international relations of the Republic"; and
  • "Top secret," where publishing may cause “serious or irreparable harm” to national security or could cause other states to “sever diplomatic relations with the Republic.”

South Africa’s Constitution, written after the end of the racist apartheid government, is deemed one of the most liberal legal frameworks in the world, and guarantees free expression. It was, after all, the ANC that fought for such freedoms in its long period of struggle against the previous government. But efforts to change the laws to ban leaking of documents in the past year are part of the reason why Freedom House recently downgraded South Africa in its Freedom Index.

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