Parliament bid to gag media

04 October 2011 - 02:20 By ANNA MAJAVU
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Parliament is threatening to ban a reporter who spoke to an official off the record about the government's secrecy bill, citing a previously unknown "media protocol".

The SA National Editors' Forum slammed the development as a new assault on media freedom, already under attack by the ANC and the government.

It emerged yesterday that Zingile Dingani, the secretary to parliament, had written to Independent Group editors asking why he should not withdraw reporter Deon de Lange's accreditation.

In a report last week, De Lange quoted criticism by an unnamed senior parliamentary official of the ANC's decision to continue consideration of the Protection of State Information Bill - intended to criminalise whistle-blowing involving classified documents - in a closed ruling-party committee.

"It's like the blind leading the blind and [the ANC] are confusing everybody," the source told De Lange.

After the article appeared, ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga threatened to crack down on De Lange's source and ordered an investigation.

He described the source as a "bad apple" who had shown "deplorable conduct". He said the source would "face disciplinary measures" if found guilty.

Luzuko Jacobs, parliament's senior spokesman, confirmed the sending of the letter to the Independent Group and said parliament believed the reporter had violated a code of conduct imposed by parliament's presiding officers, the Speaker and the chairman of the National Council of Provinces.

Jacobs denied that the move was an assault on media freedom.

Raymond Louw, deputy chairman of the forum's media freedom committee, confirmed that editors had not seen or been consulted about the protocol cited by Dingani as his authority to ban De Lange from parliament.

He said it was "totally unacceptable" that parliament had developed a protocol limiting the rights of reporters without consulting editors or media organisations.

"This is part of the growing secrecy enveloping South African political and civic affairs," Louw said.

He cited the secrecy bill itself, the Film and Publications Bill and other bills being processed by parliament as new restrictions on the freedom of information and of the media.

The protocol faxed to reporters yesterday, the "Draft Policy on Media Relations Management", forbids reporters to visit the offices of parliamentary staff or MPs without invitation.

Sowetan editor Mpumelelo Mkhabela said knocking on MPs' doors was a tradition in parliamentary reporting.

The protocol also requires reporters to respect the privacy of MPs and staff.

"Journalists should not approach party support staff or employees of parliament to seek information on parliamentary matters. All enquiries are to be made through the media relations office," the document says.

"Parliament reserves the right to cancel, revoke or review accreditation of a journalist should the policies, rules and regulations of parliament be breached by a journalist."

Parliament's press gallery association is to issue a statement on the restrictions today.

Jacobs said parliamentary officials were required to act impartially towards all parties and that this impartiality had been breached by the unnamed official's comments critical of the ANC.

He said the ANC had complained about the breach, which, he added, had undermined the credibility of parliament.

Rejecting a tradition of parliamentary reporting that started in 1994, Jacobs said it was unprofessional for a reporter to approach anyone not officially authorised to speak.

"Some of these people are naive. The official may have given that opinion without knowing that it would be published."

Editors said, however, that it was a basic rule of journalism that a reporter would tell a source that his information was to be used and how it would be cited.

Jacobs said he was sure the protocol was in the public domain but could not say whether it had been sent to reporters.

Louw said editors would never have accepted such Draconian restrictions on the freedom to report parliament.

He said that, at first glance, it seemed that the provisions of the protocol were unconstitutional.

"Editors decide who will represent them at parliament. It is not parliament's job to decide who can get accreditation."

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