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Proposed media laws remind protesters of apartheid days

Thirty-three years after "Black Wednesday", when the apartheid regime banned two newspapers and clamped down on anti-apartheid activists and associations, press freedom advocates in South Africa took to the streets of Johannesburg to protest proposed regulatory media laws that "haven't been seen since the end of apartheid," report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI).

Sporting T-shirts reading "I demand the right to know" and waving signs and placards reading "Stop the Secrecy Bill," dozens of protesters marched on 19 October against the Protection of Information Bill and the proposal by the leading African National Congress (ANC) for a media tribunal, reports CPJ.

According to the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) and other IFEX members, under the Protection of Information bill any government department would have full authority to classify public information as secret if it is in the "national interest" - and without having to give reasons.

CPJ said this would include details of criminal investigations, which could mean less coverage of police or judicial cases. Those found guilty of disclosing information could face up to 25 years in jail.

The ANC's Media Appeals Tribunal would replace the independent, voluntary South Africa Press Council and have the power to dole out punishment for complaints against the press.

The march was organised by the Right2Know Campaign, a coalition of more than 350 civil society organisations and 10,000 individuals. Right2Know is planning to present a petition to Parliament this week, says IPI.

This month, the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) and Print Media South Africa identified a new threat: the Protection from Harassment bill. Intended to target stalking and protect privacy, the bill could also seriously limit the work of journalists by making traditional and legitimate aspects of a reporter's work illegal, says CPJ.

According to CPJ, media and civil society pressure has already yielded some results. Legislators revised the Protection of Information bill to remove the vaguely-defined term "national interest", which was being seen as a blanket justification for classifying official information. And after a meeting with SANEF, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe publicly suggested the ANC could drop its tribunal proposal if the media reforms its mechanisms for self-regulation.

For one veteran journalist who was a victim of the Black Wednesday crackdown, the government's recent stance feels familiar. In a recent speech, Joe Latakgomo recounted the abuses of the apartheid regime, many committed in the name of the "national interest." He demanded, "How can we so quickly forget what the result of gagging the media could be?"

Plus, says IPI, 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 points to Zambia, which is also considering creating a statutory "self-regulatory" body.

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