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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

IPI Joins ‘Black Wednesday’ Press Freedom Commemoration in South Africa

Acting Director Warns of Press Freedom Decline in the Country 

Protesters take part in a silent march in Johannesburg 19 October 2010. Protesters voiced their objections to the Protection of Information Bill that is currently before Parliament and the subject of considerable public debate. Photo: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Thirty-three years after an Apartheid regime banned two newspapers and clamped down on anti-apartheid activists and associations, South Africa recognized what is commonly known as “Black Wednesday” with a series of events around the country.

In the country to lobby against proposed media regulations, IPI Acting Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said, “Today is a day on which we recall a dark day in South Africa’s past. It was a day 33 years ago in which, under the brutal apartheid regime, freedom of expression suffered another blow.”

IPI participated in the annual National Media Freedom Day at Wits University. The day-long event featured three panel discussions, including: “Freedom of Expression is Every Citizen’s Business,” co-sponsored by the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) and the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, and “Media Freedom, Media Reform”, sponsored by the Embassy of Sweden in Pretoria, the International School of Transparency, SANEF and the Journalism Program at Wits as well as the Wits School of Law.

This year’s “Black Wednesday” events hold particular relevance in light of recent debates centering on a government proposed Media Advisory Tribunal and a Protection of Information Bill.

IPI is concerned that throughout the southern Africa region, governments are moving towards increased regulation of the media by statute. Last week, an IPI delegation in Zambia urged the government to reconsider its move to establish a statutory “self-regulatory” body, despite the fact that the media community in Zambia has already put in place mechanisms for an entirely voluntary and independent media council, the Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC).

As a regional leader, the South African government should recognise the potentially detrimental repercussions any restrictions on the media in South Africa may have throughout the region.

IPI’s concerns in South Africa centre on the Protection of Information Bill currently in Parliament, and the African National Congress’ calls for a Media Appeals Tribunal that would supplant the independent voluntary South Africa Press Council.  The Protection of Information Bill, which is designed to regulate the classification of state information, also encourages secrecy and contains penalties for whistleblowers that IPI fears would curtail investigative journalism, thereby threatening government transparency.

“The significance is back in 1977 when the Apartheid government banned newspapers and individuals and organisations, and it was an illegitimate government and ever since then it has always been commemorated. Since 1994 we have a constitution that cemented media freedom and we celebrate that”, said Mondli Makhanya, Chairman of the South African National Editors’ Forum.

“For the first time since 1994, we see real threats to media freedom and this is happening under a democratic government which is supposed to uphold constitutional values and defend our freedoms but rather seems to be going the other way. That is why South African media and civil society have been working so hard to make sure that this is nipped in the bud.

“The other thing we want to emphasise with this year’s event is that media freedom is not just about us journalists. It’s about every citizen’s right to know.”

Earlier in the day the Right to Know Campaign staged a march in Johannesburg in protest of the Freedom of Information Bill. According to Lauren Hutton, of Right to Know, the organisation will present a petition to Parliament next Thursday.

Joining Bethel McKenzie at the commemorative event was IPI Fellow and Chairman of the South African Press Council, Raymond Louw, and IPI Press Freedom Adviser Naomi Hunt and IPI Communications Officer Nayana Jayarajan.

Panellists at the Wits University event included Professor Kader Asmal, member of the African National Congress (ANC) and a former member of Parliament; Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of the Mail and Guardian newspaper; Mandli Makhanya, Chairman of SANEF; former Swedish member of Parliament, former newspaper publisher and deputy Finance Minister, Olle Waestberg; Swedish Ambassador to South Africa, Peter Tejler; and Lumko Mtimde, ANC leader and chief Executive of Media Development and Diversity Agency, amongst several others.

PDFs of Bethel McKenzie's speech and a letter written to the Zambian Vice President are available for download in the links list on the right hand side of this page.