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Free speech advocate ‘in hot seat’

Resource type: News

Business Day | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Wilson Johwa. No sooner had she joined the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), than Ayesha Kajee was thrust into the middle of the tussle over press freedom.

Ms Kajee took over as director of the FXI on July 1, coming from the University of the Witwatersrand where she ran a human rights research programme.

In her first week a story broke implicating former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool in paying a journalist to write about him favourably, compelling her to issue a statement condemning unethical journalism and corruption.

The FXI has inevitably been drawn into the heated debate over the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed media tribunal. “I’ve been in the hot seat in the past six weeks,” Ms Kajee says.

This week the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party (SACP) — part of the governing party’s tripartite alliance — are expected to decide on positions on the media tribunal and the bill.

“If they are truly — and I believe they are — a federation that operates in the interests of workers, then surely it will be in workers’ interests not to have a veil of secrecy over how people in high places operate,” says Ms Kajee.

Next month the African National Congress (ANC) is to hold further discussions on its proposed introduction of a media tribunal, something the party has long favoured.

The debate over media regulation has pitted much of the media, which wants the status quo of self- regulation to prevail, against the ruling party.

SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin says that while the media is important in the fight against corruption, its revelations “can easily feed into a paradigm that the state by definition is corrupt”.

The consequence is often “subliminal racism” and perceptions that this is what happens when “they” —a black government — take over, he says.

“The danger is that you sow a sense of apathy in regard to the state and elected political representatives” being perceived to be inherently corrupt.

The FXI has commissioned research on best practice in media regulation, with the preliminary findings expected this week.

“We’re wanting to place some alternatives on the table, to say that perhaps it’s premature to go from one extreme — total self-regulation — to the other extreme being proposed, that is state regulation,” Ms Kajee says.

The tribunal is not an appropriate solution to problems in the media, such as juniorisation of newsrooms and lack of diversity.

“Where there has been state regulation of the media we have seen that this has been the beginning of a slippery slide towards repression of the media.”

Ms Kajee does not believe that Parliament — as the bill proposes — can provide adequate safeguards against state control of the tribunal, given the dominance of the ANC.

This position is supported by Mr Cronin, who says the ruling party can abuse its majority in Parliament to appoint “a bunch of lapdogs”. However, Mr Cronin says the press ombudsman is “fast asleep” and unaccountable. “You don’t know what it’s doing and what’s come before it and occasionally you’ll see an apology on page 13.”

But Ms Kajee urges caution. “We should be looking at regulations not with ourselves as incumbent governments in mind but looking at worst-case scenarios — what if your worst enemy were in government and were to use the laws that you have put in place against you?” she asks.

The debate intensified last week with US ambassador Donald Gips calling for the government and the media to “reach common ground”, and University of Cape Town vice- chancellor Max Price saying the bill would impinge on academic freedom too. The General Council of the Bar said the bill is unnecessary because the information it covers is protected from disclosure under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) is an Atlantic grantee.

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