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Press group: South Africa media tribunal threat to journalism

The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) [official website] sent an open letter to South African President Jacob Zuma [official profile; JURIST news archive] on Wednesday expressing concerns over plans by the African National Congress (ANC) [party website] to create a special court to punish press outlets that publish sensitive state information. If passed, the Protection of Information Bill [text, PDF], which is now before the Parliament [official website], would criminalize the dissemination or publication of information classified as essential to national security with up to 25 years in prison. The accused would appear before the government-appointed Media Appeals Tribunal. In the letter, IPI Interim Director Alison Bethel-McKenzie said that such a system would amount to government censorship:

IPI believes that any Media Appeals Tribunal will not be independent. If the MAT is appointed by parliament, it will face an inherent conflict of interest that will skew its rulings in favour of public and party officials and essentially amount to government oversight of the media—which is unacceptable .... [T]he [Protection of Information] Bill provides for a very low threshold for the classification of information, but at the same time imposes draconian penalties on those who reveal that information—without providing for a public interest defense ... an unfair penalty system that encourages secrecy and could lead to the erosion of investigative journalism.
The IPI stressed that the Press Council of South Africa [official website] already acts as a policing body on the nation's press, forcing publishers to adhere to ethical guidelines and retract inaccurate information.

On Sunday, a group of South African journalists expressed disdain [statement; JURIST report] for the proposed regulations, claiming they will inhibit freedom of expression. This is not the first sign of tension between the ANC and the South African media. Recently, there have been many reports on Zuma's lavish spending on luxury vehicles. In 2005, the Johannesburg High Court banned the release [JURIST report] of a newspaper article revealing a corruption scandal involving the nation's ruling ANC, requiring South Africa's leading independent newspaper, the Mail and Guardian [media website] to prevent the distribution of its entire 45,000 issue run.

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