Naspers Ltd., Africa’s largest media company, said a draft law under debate in South Africa’s Parliament that would restrict access to government information is “deeply disturbing.”
The Protection of Information Bill proposes giving government officials the power to classify documents in the “national interest” and jail anyone possessing them without authorization for as long as 25 years. The measure would hobble investigative reporters and violate constitutional rights to free speech, newspaper editors and civil-rights groups told lawmakers last month.
“There is little doubt that the South African economy will go to pieces,” if the bill is passed, Naspers Chairman Ton Vosloo said at the company’s annual general meeting in Cape Town today. “South Africa will no longer be a transparent democracy. Newspapers and radio stations will not be able to report about corruption.”
The government says it has noted objections to the bill and will make changes if necessary.
The proposal “aims to improve the security of the state with regards to work of counterespionage and information peddling,” the Ministry of State Security said in an e-mailed statement on Aug. 25. “It is not true that the intention is to stifle freedom of expression and create a society of secrecy.”
The South African Congress of Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor grouping and a member of the ruling alliance, yesterday rejected the proposed measure.
“The bill covers a far too broad range of information that can be classified on the grounds that it is considered to affect the national interest,” Zwelinzima Vavi, the federation’s general secretary, told reporters in Johannesburg. It has the potential to “suppress information on corruption. The bill must be withdrawn and completely reconstituted.”
In addition to the media bill, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has called for the establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal to investigate complaints against the media, which would be accountable to parliament. That task is currently handled by a press ombudsman, who the party says is biased toward the newspapers that fund his post.
Cosatu could not support the establishment of a media tribunal “until it was much clearer how it would be constituted,” Vavi said. “Studies should be conducted into how the problem is dealt with in other countries and how the independence of such bodies can be safeguarded.”