29 Jul 2008
By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN, July 29 (Reuters) - South African media faces the threat of political censorship if new information laws are passed through parliament unchanged, media firms argued at public hearings on Tuesday.
The Protection of Information Bill put forward by the African National Congress-led government seeks to replace apartheid-era laws that also governed the protection of information.
It has been lambasted by media, civic organisations and opposition parties as draconian. Among other measures, the bill would make the unauthorised disclosure of information a crime and journalists could be prosecuted for espionage. Investigative reporters fear that would severely limit their ability to break stories.
"The present formulation of the bill ... has the result that there will be censorship of political expression," said Dario Milo, an attorney for Avusa Ltd, publisher of Business Day, the Sunday Times and other papers.
He said Avusa took exception to the bill's broad definition of concepts such as national interest, its unprecedented regulation of commercial information and disregard of the defence of public interest in publishing information. South African politicians have increasingly approached the courts to prevent the publication of details of deals that have drawn accusations of corruption. Until now, they have had limited success.
Milo agreed with the opposition Democratic Alliance member Dene Smuts that an unintended consequence of the bill was that it could cover up corrupt practices by its regulation of commercial information such tender bids.
The Mail and Guardian newspaper also argued against the bill.
"We can all agree that total openness is neither practical, nor desirable, while too much secrecy can undermine the very basis of our freedom," it said in a written submission.
"The question is how to strike the right balance. Regrettably, the bill does not set out the answer to this question in any coherent way, and the position it plumbs for on the spectrum of secrecy is neither reasonable nor justifiable." The draft bill must first go through the legislative process in parliament before being signed by the state president an coming into force. (Editing by Matthew Tostevin)