A lot has been said in the recent weeks on 2 issues that somewhat mutually exclusive. The first of these is the Protection of Information Bill currently before parliament. The second one is the issue of the media tribunal which some attribute to ANC NGC Discussion Document released a couple of weeks ago. These are 2 separate matters and an attempt will be made to discuss them separately. In this text, I shall focus on the Bill as was of contribution to the the debate but also as a way of avoiding a question, “what’s you view?” I shall henceforth refer those who ask me that to this article.
It is a general practice in democracies to classify documents. As a result, people who may interact with those documents undergo a process known as vetting that seeks to assign appropriate clearance to persons thereby granting them access to certain documents as per their classification.
However, the problem thus far has been that when a classified document is leaked, especially to unvetted news reporters (aka investigative journalists) it runs a risk of being published without regard of the consequences. The publication of those documents make a mockery of both the document classification and the vetting processes.
Most rational people in the media admit the necessity of PIB, but they raise their reservations. The reservations include the extent to which the Bill, once passed, may be subjected to abuse by those who may want to cover up acts of corruption. Section 49 of the Bill already imposes a 3 years sentence for the documents that are wrongly classified. Related to this clause is how will such abuse eventually suffice without the document having leaked and the media bringing it to the attention of the authorities that it was incorrectly classified. This is not an easy question but parliament has a way of answering difficult questions.
The other issue raised by rational people about the PIB is a proposal for the inclusion of the “public interest” clause in the Bill. The Bill already covers extensively the issue of “national interests” of which some pretend it’s a mystery as though their media institutions do not have interest that secret which they protect from exposure to other media houses. The matter of public interest is a bit tricky because it is usually decided by the editors and it may not be easy to grant people who are not vetted such decision making powers about classified documents.
Lastly on the Bill, as the debate evolves, some have made remarks that cast aspersions on the judiciary. Once the Bill is passed into law it will be applied by the judiciary and there is a lot of room for maneuver by the legal counsel at that level. The paranoia of reporters being jailed irrationally is neither here nor there.
In the end the state has a responsibility to protect the national interests and ensure that the foreign relations are not tempered by abuse of certain pieces of information.