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Time for action on South African 'secrecy bill'

A man walks past an election poster of Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) party in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, 9 May 2014.
A man walks past an election poster of Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) party in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, 9 May 2014.

AP Photo/Ben Curtis

With elections behind him, South African President Jacob Zuma should underscore his commitment to media freedom by calling for a thorough legal review of legislation that could restrict reporters' access to sensitive public information, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

IPI, which held its annual World Congress in South Africa less than a month before yesterday's national and provincial elections, is also urging Zuma to join other African leaders in committing to abolish colonial-era criminal penalties for defamation.

Early results showed Zuma's African National Congress heading for its fifth electoral triumph since 1994, a victory that would extend the party's rule through 2019.

“We call on President Zuma to immediately send the Protection of State Information Bill for a legal review by the Constitutional Court,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said. “This legislation needs a rigorous constitutional review to ensure it protects the rights of journalists to get information that is vital for democratic decision-making by the public.”

IPI's General Assembly, meeting in Cape Town on April 14, unanimously urged Zuma to submit the Protection of State Information Bill, also known as the “secrecy bill”, to the court for a ruling on its constitutionality.

“Doing so would send the message that this and future South African governments will not hesitate to engage in a comprehensive legal review of legislation in order to protect the freedoms of the press and expression, as well as freedom of information,” said a resolution adopted by IPI members from 49 countries.

The IPI members added that the legislation, “as written, vests too much power in the hands of the minister of State Security to determine what information can be classified, giving the minister power to bury information that is potentially embarrassing.”

The IPI members additionally criticised the bill's lack of a public-interest defence or sufficient protections for whistleblowers. The measure was approved by lawmakers and sent to the president on Nov. 12, 2013.

The call for a constitutional review was echoed by the South African National Editors' Forum on World Press Freedom Day, four days before the election.

Bethel McKenzie also urged the newly re-elected president to sign the Declaration of Table Mountain that calls for abolishing criminal defamation and insult laws in Africa. Only two African leaders have signed it - Presidents Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia - since it was drafted in South Africa in 2007.

“Signing the Table Mountain Declaration is just a start,” Bethel McKenzie said. “President Zuma also needs to use his parliamentary majority to abolish defamation and insult laws, which remain a heinous legacy of the apartheid era. It is shocking that these weapons of oppression are still on the books in a free, pluralistic and democratic South Africa.”

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