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It’s not just the government that’s guilty of secrecy

By Ilham Rawoot

While big things are happening on the media freedom front, it seems that some of the people on the inside of the SABC are the ones blocking the news themselves.

This doesn’t make things any easier in a tense atmosphere where journalists still have to deal with difficult spokespeople who think that the Protection of Information Bill has already been passed. One step forward, ten steps backward.

On the one hand, good things are starting. On Tuesday more than 200 local and international civil-society organisations launched the Right2Know campaign at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. The campaign demands that the bill limits secrecy to core state bodies in the security sector and does not criminalise the legitimate disclosure of secrets in the public interest, amongst other things. It’s what we’ve all been calling for, but now it’s been consolidated into one movement, which is always helpful. That’s the good part of the week.

On the more frightening side, the M&G reported this week that a big boss at the SABC has been blocking and punting news based on his own fancies. The story reads that Phil Molefe, head of news at the state broadcaster instructed employees to broadcast that he had been given the job, after his appointment in May. But when it emerged, five days later, that the board did not approve his appointment, he instructed staff to kill a story about the board’s objections. The head of radio news wasn’t going to be told what to do, and went ahead with the story, only to be threatened with disciplinary action afterwards.

I’m not sure which is scarier — the government threatening to jail journalists for being in possession of anything they deem as “secret”, or the heads of media organisations picking, choosing and banning stories based on their own ego-boosting agendas.

Now is not the time to be creating internal scuffles — now is the time to be open and transparent. If not us, then who?

In the meantime, spokespeople are going on power trips, seemingly unaware that the bill is still a bill, and that even if it is passed, will almost certainly have to face Constitutional scrutiny, which it has little chance of fleeing unscathed.

In yet another nasty email to-and-fro with a government communication head this week, a colleague was called “disingenuous” when he asked for details about a questionable multimillion-rand tender award. “We cannot release them with proper procedure being followed and, above all, to a person who is not honest about the reasons for requesting these,” he was told, in bold red font.

And I, when requesting information from a spokesperson, was reprimanded for not using the answers he had sent me in our last correspondence, even though he had sent them two days after my deadline.

But can we really expect them to change when people within our industry are hiding information from the public as well?

Transparency and openness is not the enemy. It’s not always easy to run with a story that doesn’t suit everyone’s ideals. People, even within newsrooms, have different opinions on different subjects. But news is news and truth is truth. And this seems to be something that needs to be realised not only by the government, but by some people within the media itself. Or else we’re screwed.