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S.African editors sound alarm over information bill

Published on 03/05/2012

South Africa's newspaper editors warned Thursday that the country's status as a "beacon" for press freedom on the continent is threatened by an information law backed by the ruling ANC.

“South Africa remains a beacon of press freedom on the African continent, but that status has come under real threat from new legislative proposals, from hostile political rhetoric, and from the conduct of some senior state officials,” the South Africa National Editors Forum said.

The group cited particular concern over the Protection of State Information Bill, which would impose harsh prison sentences on anyone who discloses classified secrets. The bill is currently before the upper house of parliament in its last legislative hurdle, with debate expected later this month.

“Without the insertion of a clause protecting from prosecution those who publish such secrets in the public interest — in other words, to reveal serious wrongdoing — and other important modifications, the bill is a danger not just to press freedom, but to democracy,” it said.

Penalties up to 25 years could be imposed for revelations deemed as espionage. The bill has drawn opposition not only from journalists but from major labour unions and the parliamentary opposition, who fear the law will be used to cover up corruption.

The government insists the bill is meant to update an apartheid-era information law, but the measure has already drawn threats of lawsuits by critics who argue that it conflicts with South Africa’s democratic constitution.