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New bill threatens media freedom, says MISA

(MISA/IFEX) - Media practitioners are raising concerns over the new Protection of Harassment Bill, describing it as a form of censorship. If passed, the Bill would see journalists and their publications facing criminal charges or damage claims against them for simply doing their job.

The Protection of Harassment Bill is the result of an investigation conducted by the South African Reform Commission (SARC). Its aim is to protect victims of stalking not covered by the Domestic Violence Act. But the South African Editors' Forum (SANEF) says the Bill has the unintended consequence of preventing journalists from doing their work, in particular in-depth investigations.

The definition of harassment in the Bill is broad enough to include methods journalists use daily to obtain information in their investigations. SANEF's concern is that, although the definition qualifies the conduct by stating that it must be "unreasonable", in the absence of a preamble citing freedom of the media as a right to be specifically respected (clause 16 of the Bill of Rights), the threat of an excessively broad interpretation remains. SANEF argued that due to a lack of understanding of the role of the media, journalists may be subjected to a protection order being served on them.

Mario Milo, a media law specialist at the law firm Webber Wentzel, agreed that the harassment definition was broad enough to curtail media coverage. "A media exemption for public interest reporting is required. At the very least, the definition of 'harassment' should be read down in accordance with the constitutional protection of freedom of expression, so that legitimate and good faith articles by the media are not hit," Milo said.

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The use of criminal law to silence people who write about public issues is a significant problem in many countries…

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