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Wed Aug 05 08:29:15 SAST 2015

New bills 'amount to state clampdown'

BRENDAN BOYLE | 19 October, 2010 23:040 Comments

The Protection from Harassment Bill currently before parliament is the latest in a series of legislative proposals to restrict the media, the South African National Editors' Forum said yesterday.

Lawyers for Sanef, Print MediaSA and Avusa, the owner of titles including the Sunday Times, The Times and The Herald, said the bill in its current form could make traditional and legitimate aspects of a reporter's work illegal.

"Sanef and PMSA have become increasingly alarmed at the increasing number of bills and other instruments that contain restrictions on the media in addition to those we perceive in the Protection from Harassment Bill," the two said in a written presentation to parliament's justice committee.

The harassment bill proposes criminal sanctions of up to five years in prison for the unreasonable pursuit of a person that could cause physical or mental harm, such as stalking.

It would allow a victim to get a court order for protection from a follower, from persistent calls, e-mails or SMSs or any other activity that could be seen as stalking.

Though intended mainly to protect citizens from jilted lovers and business partners, editors fear it could be used to impede legitimate journalistic inquiries.

"News is a perishable commodity and to delay its publication even for a short period may well deprive it of value," Avusa lawyer Dario Milo told the committee. "The moment you have got an interim protection order against a journalist or a newspaper, that freezes the speech and that could have a detrimental impact upon public discourse."

Sanef and PMSA listed seven bills that could impact upon the freedom of the press and said new measures amount to the state clamping down on access to information.

The media is also at loggerheads with the ANC over its proposal for a media appeals tribunal with as-yet-unspecified power to overrule the existing Press Council and to penalise media owners.

The harassment bill proposes criminal sanctions of up to five years in prison for the unreasonable pursuit of a person that could cause physical or mental harm, such as stalking.

Milo proposed that the definition of harassment should be tightened and the bill should make provision for activities in pursuit of a public interest, such as exposing a crime.

In an argument that mirrored the media's opposition to the separate Protection of Information Bill, Milo said reporters did not seek a specific exemption from the provisions of either bill, but should be allowed to argue before a judge that their actions were in the public interest.

Milo said that in its current form, the bill could make a dogged reporter trying to put an allegation to the subject of his work a criminal and could criminalise a series of reports about a single person.

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