Monday, 30 August 2010

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-03

Keeping a Free-Press Free - Essential for a Democracy

Tanzania is lucky to have a free press. This means that, provided I adhere to the national laws, I may write what I like here without needing to fear for the security of any employee in this newspaper. These laws include bans on writing anything that infringes libel, copyright and defamation, or anything that incites violence or illegal hatred (such as racism).

The benefits of this free press are huge. It enables a society to hear the truth of a situation, allowing the public to form their own opinions about the important issues affecting them, such as who to vote for in an election. It is one of the basic fundamentals of a functioning democracy.

Here in the UK, the press is referred to as the ‘Fourth Estate’, after the traditional three estates in British parliament-namely the Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal and the Commons. The earliest known use of this term was by a man called Burke in 1787, recorded in Thomas Carlyle’s book On Heroes and Hero Worship: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

The press is the ‘eyes and ears of the people’ and also frequently their voice. The peoples’ voice is the most important voice in a democracy. ‘Democracy’ itself comes from the ancient Greek ‘demos’, meaning ‘people’ and ‘kratos’, power. Democracy is a power from the people.

The South African government, lead by President Jacob Zuma, clearly don’t agree about the importance of the peoples’ voice. They are proposing a bill that would dramatically restrict press freedom in their country.

The Protection of Information Bill, currently being debated in South African parliament, would give power for government officials to classify any public or commercial data as official and private, on the murkily defined grounds of ‘national interest’, without having to give an explanation as to why.

In the words of Xavier Vidal-Folch, president of the World Editors Forum: “Such powers could be used to outlaw coverage of such issues as public law enforcement and judicial matters, with political appointees having the final say over which information should be classified.”

There would be no ability for journalists in South Africa to report on any classified information that could be of public interest. If they were caught disclosing this information, they may face severe penalties.

This would represent a backward step for a nation that is self-consciously trying to push itself onto the podium of the developed world and would mark a blow against the millions of internationally minded, modern thinkers from the country.

To compound the issue, the African National Congress are also proposing substituting the current, self-regulating press complaints authority with a Media Appeals Tribunal, created by the government, that would be in a position to act without the neutrality and effectiveness of the current system.

South African writers, many of them used to having civil liberties shackled in the past, are not taking the proposal lying down. A journalist in a respected South African national daily has written that the proposals are advocating, “Just another form of censorship”. A group of the country’s top authors have issued a joint statement against the bill.

Part of this reads: “If the work and freedom of the writer are in jeopardy, the freedom of every reader in South Africa is in danger.” It continues that their protest is: “An action undertaken by South Africans for all South Africans, committing ourselves to our demand for a free country, freedom of thought expressed, freedom of dialogue, and freedom from fear of the truth about ourselves, all South Africans.”

Yes, Tanzania is lucky to have a free press, where these freedoms are tolerated. It should not be taken for granted and the right to expression should be nurtured and encouraged in further generations. The continent may look up to its most southerly neighbour in many regards-the economy and industry for instance-but this proposed bill is one that no nation, with a value on the people’s voice, should contemplate passing.

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