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Muzzling the media will harm our democracy

Published: 8 February 2012

The passing of the Protection of Information Bill last year has brought with it concerns. While there is still debate over how it will be implemented, the media alreadly feels threatened. But what will its effects be?

By Darren Gilbert

The passing of the Protection of Information Bill (POIB) late last year by the National Assembly has brought with it concerns from all spheres of society. While it still has to be debated by the National Council of Provinces, irrespective of when it is spoken of and whether or not it is implemented as is, Committee to Protect Journalists deputy director, Robert Mahoney, believes the media is already under threat. And with good reason. No one wants to go to jail for revealing ‘classified’ information. With that in mind, what effect will the bill really have on the media?

According to Julie Reid, a media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at UNISA, we can rest assured that the bill won’t result in a total media blackout. In fact, such a future is impossible in our age of new media, she adds. That’s a good thing, right? Well, actually no. Despite this reassurance, it doesn’t make the bill any less dangerous because it lays the foundations for something else - a culture of secrecy. In society where information is tantamount to ensuring good and meaningful decision making, it will always be a problem.

A chat with Independent Newspapers Cadet School trainer, Jonathan Ancer, reveals just this. “We are already seeing people claiming that they can’t speak because something is classified or because they are scared of losing their jobs.” The obvious consequence of this would be the drying up of information, which would make it difficult for journalists to do their job. However, this is not so much only a problem for the media as it is for the public as well. By refusing media the right to report, it removes the public from the information they need, which in turn leads to a crisis for our democracy.

It’s an important point that Reid believes needs to be made. “We need to remember that the media has misrepresented this bill as an anti-media bill. It is not an anti-media bill [but rather] an anti-access-to-information-bill.” And yes, there is a difference. “The people who stand to be most affected by this bill are actually not the media but people at grassroots levels and in disadvantaged communities.” This shows one thing and it’s an idea that Mahoney advocates on his blog: when it comes to the bill, less focus should be placed on its impact on the media and more on its effect on ordinary South Africans.

Of course, when it comes to information, anything that affects the media will undoubtedly concern the public as well. For Ancer, one such fear is that with the bill in place, journalists starting out won’t be as well equipped as they should be. “Young reporters don’t have the knowledge of how to speak properly to spindoctors. So when they approach spokespeople, they will come away with a bland statement, which won’t be interrogated.” That results in poor copy and as Ancer points out, the creation of a poorer democracy.

There is also the issue of editors second guessing themselves when it comes to copy, a fear which Reid says leads to self-censorship. “Editors should always think about the reader first,” explains Ancer. That’s a standard ‘rule’ whenever you write anything for an audience. However, with certain information classified, this can’t always happen. Reid puts it this way: “When the Protection of Information Bill becomes a reality, government accountability is diminished.” The media will be placed outside the information circle, making them less effective in reporting on and revealing information that the public needs.

However, as both Reid and Ancer point out, to say that this will result in a dumbing down of the media is unfair. “There is certainly a danger of that happening but I have faith in journalism and journalists,” says Ancer. “I think we could see a more creative process where journalists will dig deeper and find original ways of telling a story.” Meanwhile, Reid envisages a future that could include some journalists becoming tamer while “risky and courageous journalism” declines, but she hastens to add that others will simply refuse to be intimidated.

There is no doubt that the Protection of Information Bill will have an effect on the media. The way that information is gathered is bound to change when whistleblowers and sources are too scared to speak. Ancer suggests tentatively that this might be a blessing in disguise as it would result in journalists engaging with ordinary people first. While it is an interesting idea, you would be foolish to view the bill in a positive light. Afterall, when is it ever a good thing to withhold important information from your audience?

Do you think that there are any advantages to implementing the bill in its current form? Leave your comments on our blog.

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