THE MEDIA APPEALS TRIBUNAL vs. FREEDOM OF THE PRESS AND INFORMATION

The struggle is about power and those in power always want to have more power. South Africa will be the first country to have, in place, a media tribunal if the proposed information bill passes as is. Constitutional law expert Archibald Cox, drawing from the experiences of his country, the United States of America, says a free, self-governing people needs full information concerning the activities of its government not only to shape views of policy and vote in elections, but also to compel the government, its agent, to act responsively and account for its doings.

We come from a past in which we were denied the facts and prevented from communicating with each other in ways necessary for self-government and where the racist Apartheid government had the absolute power of censorship. The press was not free; we could not speak, write, and engage in political discourse and activities without fear of reprisal. After sixteen years of relative press freedom, the ruling ANC, SACP and ANCYL want to take us back to those dark days of oppression. Some government officials who have been engaging in malfeasance and corruption are calling for the establishment of a media tribunal to curb leaks that exposes corrupt activities.

The struggle is about power and those in power always want to have more power. South Africa will be the first country to have, in place, a media tribunal if the proposed information bill passes as is. Constitutional law expert Archibald Cox, drawing from the experiences of his country, the United States of America, says a free, self-governing people needs full information concerning the activities of its government not only to shape views of policy and vote in elections, but also to compel the government, its agent, to act responsively and account for its doings.

We come from a past in which we were denied the facts and prevented from communicating with each other in ways necessary for self-government and where the racist Apartheid government had the absolute power of censorship. The press was not free; we could not speak, write, and engage in political discourse and activities without fear of reprisal. After sixteen years of relative press freedom, the ruling ANC, SACP and ANCYL want to take us back to those dark days of oppression. Some government officials who have been engaging in malfeasance and corruption are calling for the establishment of a media tribunal to curb leaks that exposes corrupt activities.

The main question, in view of these adverse developments in the media, is how to deal with government secrecy and deception? One solution could be to encourage disclosure by dissidents within the government even though this could be in breach of confidentiality. Another is to have institutionalized leaks as one of the checks and balances. But according to the proposed Information Bill, whistle blowers and journalists could end up being locked up.

Our Bill of Rights should be converted by judicial interpretation into a government duty to provide the press with access to information. It has been argued that drawing the lines for the Legislative and Executive branches between what must be open and what may be closed is unsuited to judicial determination and even if it were otherwise, lawsuits cannot bring to light activities and information whose very existence is wholly secret. Cox argues that in the end, therefore, the only protection of the people against excessive government secrecy is the people’s own active insistence on disclosure, expressed by their votes and the legislative action of their representatives.

The First Amendment in the US reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”. This provision demonstrates that freedom of speech and of the press are indispensable prerequisites to other freedoms such as freedom of religion, political rights such as free assembly and free petition for redress of grievances. The Freedom of speech and of the press is also indispensable to self-government.

The “new” South Africa’s constitution was modeled on the US’s among others. Why are the leaders of the “new” South Africa not borrowing from the US this time around? The press is not always right as Cox shows. He writes that there is nonsense accepted as incontrovertible truth and that most people like him reject the notion that the only test of truth is the ability of an idea to get it accepted in free competition. Some falsities may do inestimable harm before truth prevails.

The government must accept foolish things not because they are true or false but because freedom of speech is indivisible. The liberty cannot be denied to some persons and extended to others. The reason is straight-forward: no man, no committee, and certainly no government have the infinite wisdom and disinterestedness accurately and unselfishly to separate what is true from what is debatable, and both from what are false. To license one to impose his truth on dissenters is to give the same license to all others who have, but fear the loss of, power. The risk that harm will occur from the dissemination of false ideas is a lesser danger than the risk that truth will be suppressed by the censor’s power.

By Sam Ditshego

7 thoughts on “THE MEDIA APPEALS TRIBUNAL vs. FREEDOM OF THE PRESS AND INFORMATION

  1. the article headline for me is typical of mainstream commercial newspaper articles.

    It highlight is not expressed in the content,in terms of the media tribunal, the article talks only to the proposed information bill.

    this is exactly why we need a media tribunal that can penalise media houses for sensational writting which is more about profit margins than about factual news.

    there is a consensus including in the alliance,about some of the sections of the information bill,which bothers on the principle of the constitution.

    the deputy-president is on record as saying the bill would not be passed in its current form. I refer you also to COSATU recent CC media statement and to the SACP recent CC media statement

    one would have expected Mayihlome news not to be trivial about this issue but to rather seek to add facts to the content of the bill.

  2. this is a response to kakubeng. the headline of the article is not typical of mainstream commercial newspaper articles. the article also addresses the issue of a media tribunal from where i state that “the press is not always right…”until the concluding sentence. kakubeng should go and read my article again. he should not read it in haste. the organisations he mentioned moderated their stance and toning down their rhetoric on the establishment of a media appeals tribunal because of a barrage of criticism from all directions including from organisations abroad. that is why he concedes that the deputy president said the bill will not be passed in its current form. this kakubeng just wants to portray mayihlome in a bad light. the headline is just fine because the editors of mayihlome read the article correctly and assigned it a fitting headline. and this thing of taking what the so-called alliance says as the gospel truth gives me the creeps. it is just like taking what comes from polokwane as if it came from heaven. the article is not trivial because i drew from the fountain of knowlegde of an experienced constitutional law expert, archibald cox. the article is factual. in fact it is kakubeng who is flippant.

  3. Could somebody please, anyone… fill me in about this whole Media Appeal Tribunal business? what is it, what it entails, the future implications it has on the future of the industry, and so on..

  4. Iam afraid the current model of government in south Africa does not permit the practise of this kind of laws. We’re a complete capitalist society modelled on the US and the British democracy,such Stalinist Marky laws can only work under a Boshevick regime.It will compell the ANC to drastically amend the freedom charter and change the the South African constitution to allow a rule by decree.Or if the ANC persist on the implementation of this law its history of being a liberator will be severly tarnished.

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