The connection between Israel and South Africa seems to have deepened today, as both countries moved to limit press freedoms with laws targeting the media. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC)-led National Assembly passed a controversial secrecy bill, which aims to protect state secrecy but critics claim limits press freedom. According to the Mail & Guardian,
The Bill was meant to replace a piece of apartheid-era legislation that governed the classification of state secrets. [Ronnie] Kasrils [Former South African intelligence minister] sought to create legislation that would protect state secrets but also uphold the constitutional principal of transparent governance. It included a provision that would allow whistleblowers to leak information that was in the public interest without fear of reprisal.
According to Kasrils, this version of the Bill was never tabled in Parliament and was scrapped by ruling party representatives at the committee stage after he resigned from government in September 2008.
When the Bill reappeared, its provisions were even more draconian than before. The new draft sought to create a law that would allow any organ of state, from the largest government department down to the smallest municipality, to classify any document as secret and set out harsh penalties of up to 25 years in jail for whistleblowers.
Under the bill, which is an amendment to the existing defamation law, the maximum compensation in a libel suit will increase exponentially from NIS 50,000 (~$13,000) to NIS 300,000, a whopping $80,000. Most journalists I know in Israel make between $2,000 and $3,000 a month, tops.
[The Libel Law] carries a clause that says such lawsuits might be won without proof of damages; and another clause that stipulates a reporter must publish the comment of his subject in full. In other words, I can get sued for writing that the author of the bill is more dangerous to Israel’s future than Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah combined; and, if a newspaper wants to run a 300-words report suggesting a certain company is engaging in malpractice, it must also run the full comment of the company – even if it’s 5,000 words long. With the likely result the report will not run at all.
While the secrecy bill and the libel law are clearly addressing different facets of press freedom, the effect will likely be similar in both countries. Namely, journalists will have to go through a more rigorous form of self-censorship in order to avoid long jail sentences or heavy fines. One other notable difference has been the public reactions to the two bills.
In South Africa, media organizations have published editorials slamming the secrecy bill, and have started a massive campaign against the recent legislation. South African civil society has taken to the streets in protest of the draconian laws calling today “Black Tuesday.” Even the website of the University of Cape Town has ‘censored’ its homepage in protest to the bill.
In Israel, the press has reacted with anger to the proposed law. Earlier this week, an unprecedented conference on press freedom took place in Tel Aviv. Even the legal adviser to the Government Press Office (GPO) has quit in protest over the libel law. An impromptu protest has been planned for this evening (22 Nov 2011) in Tel Aviv but numbers are expected to be small (roughly 6000 have registered on Facebook).
The major difference between South Africa and Israel is the engagement of the mainstream public. South Africans are taking to the streets in much larger numbers than Israelis, who have been dealing with attacks on freedom of speech for months. Perhaps these attacks on press freedom will provide the pretext for Israelis and South Africans to build more (and needed) civil society cooperation. On a governmental level, Israel and South Africa have enjoyed a close partnership for years. Attacks on the press should be the spark that get ordinary South Africans and Israelis (and Palestinians) talking to each other about democracy in a situation of Apartheid or Hafradah. Like it or not, South Africa and Israel are tragically connected at the hip in more than one way.
According to my fellow writers Noam Sheizaf and Dahlia Scheindlin, “Some 200 people demonstrated [this evening] in front of the headquarters of the ruling Likud party, blocking King George Street in the center of the city [Tel Aviv].” Call it apathy or what have you but the Israeli public is far from taking to the streets in protest over anti-democratic legislation.