The theme for World Press Freedom Day 2014 is threefold:

Press freedom in South Africa is protected under section 16 of the Bill of Rights in that everyone has the right to freedom of expression and this includes freedom of the press and other media, as well as the freedom to impart or receive information or ideas.

Although press freedom in South Africa in that sense is enjoyed and protected generally, there are indicators of threats to press freedom in South Africa, particularly if weighed against the 2014 World Press Freedom Day theme.

The South African Protection of State Information Bill is such an indicator.

The Bill (also known as the Secrecy Bill) is a highly controversial piece of proposed legislation, which aims to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information, weighing state interests up against transparency and freedom of expression. It will replace the Protection of State Information Act, 1982, which currently regulates these issues.

While critics of the Bill have broadly accepted the need to replace the 1982 Act, they argue that the new Bill does not correctly balance these competing principles, and point to a number of provisions that undermine the right to access information and the rights of whistleblowers and journalists.

The Bill was passed by the National Assembly on 22 November 2011. It was passed with amendments by the National Council of Provinces on 29 November 2012, and the amended Bill was approved by the National Assembly on 25 April 2013. In September 2013 President Jacob Zuma refused to sign the Bill into law and instead sent it back to the National Assembly for reconsideration – because it included some editorial errors. The Bill has now been passed by both houses of Parliament but has not yet been signed into law by the President.

The Bill was specifically identified by Reporters without Borders – an international body that fights censorship, protects and supports journalists and advocate freedom of information – as a threat to freedom of the press in South Africa in 2013. Although the Bill has been significantly improved, it does not include a comprehensive “public interest clause” and makes provision for draconian punishment for possession of classified material.

South African journalists are increasingly harassed by security forces. South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) press statements indicate at least 16 cases of wrongful arrest or physical threat/assault by SAPS on journalists since 2011.

Most recently, Sanef condemned the removal of photographs from an eNCA journalist’s cellphone by a VIP policeman guarding President Jacob Zuma while he was pursuing his election campaign near Duduza, Ekurhuleni. According to reports, the bodyguard grabbed reporter Nickolaus Bauer’s cellphone camera and deleted pictures showing that ANC T-shirts were being handed out to ANC officials and President Zuma supporters from a Gauteng traffic vehicle, which had apparently transported them to the event.

Another disturbing development is increasing attempts to litigate against mainstream newspapers and political commentators, especially where they are critical of the ruling party. The Mail & Guardian for example has been dragged to court or threatened with legal action more than once, most notably when trying to investigate allegations relating to the presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj. Journalists at the Sunday Times newspaper recently discovered that their cellphones had been illegally tapped by security forces, and that the police had allegedly tricked the judge responsible for issuing the directive to allow this tapping.

The reputation of the SABC is also increasingly in disrepute for failing to cover opposition parties, or to include dissident voices in its programmes. An example includes the SABC banning in 2013 of the Big Debate- a current affairs talk show with a reputation for holding government officials to account on issues like corruption and non-delivery of services. The recent Public Protector’s report also found a number of SABC top brass guilty of abuse of power and maladministration, including the SABC Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

There should be no place for such developments in a democracy that constitutionally safeguards freedom of expression. Yet despite these threats, South Africa still enjoys a high level of press freedom. Its media seldom hesitate to criticise government – sometimes in the most outspoken manner. South Africa is rated in 42nd position in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, an annual publication by Reporters without Borders – up from its 52nd place in 2013. The Index spotlights freedom of the press and the negative impact on freedom of information and its protagonists. The 2014 Freedom Index found Finland at the top for the fourth year running, closely followed by the Netherlands and Norway and this was the same in 2013. At the other end of the index, the last three positions are held by Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

The 2014 Index stated that it is particularly worrisome that some countries, which pride themselves on being democratic and respecting the rule of law, all too often sacrifice freedom of information on the altar of broadly interpreted national security needs. As the Secrecy Bill and the above-mentioned developments show, this is clearly a looming threat in South Africa as well. However, South Africa’s Constitution requires a democratic system of government that is open, accountable and responsive. Accountability, responsiveness and openness can only be guaranteed by a free and fearless press. These are issues that we should all be considering on World Press Freedom Day.

By Adv Jacques du Preez, FW de Klerk Foundation