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Israel, South Africa deepen connection with attacks on press

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.

Dimi Reider, writing on +972, described the Israeli libel law which passed its first Knesset reading early this morning in Jerusalem:

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.

Update:

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.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Anna

      This is interesting, as I am watching what is happening in both countries. Just to give my tuppence, rand, or shekel’s worth, the relationship or “close partnership” as far as I understand – which is not really specified here – has been military mutual support and cooperation throughout the Apartheid era in South Africa, and the occupation by Israel.. But yes, perhaps there is room for a positive relationship to develop here, in terms of cooperation around press freedom and right to information.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Anna

      Sorry – I didn’t read/check your links, where you did allude to the relationships.

      Reply to Comment
    3. South Africa has a Constitutional Court (which, for example, extended civil mariage to gays several years ago). When you know an independent Court exists you may feel that protest will have a true hearing. Certainly the American Civil Rights movement did not gain traction until AFTER Brown v Board of Education was decided; activists then knew they had a possible route of appeal.
      .
      Israel has an ambiguous court, a court not always obeyed. Perhaps what the libel bill and Boycott Law are implicitly “designed” to do is create apathy, so no new parties can effectively mobilize future electoral support. No one will stand up for me. Why should I risk?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Shaun

      The “new” South Africa has been far from friendly with Israel recently.
      The first Durban racism conference was held in SA… Virtually every UN resolution tabled against Israel received automatic South African support and they even withdrew their ambassador after the Gaza debacle.
      I suggest you check you fact again… Also you will note that with the exception of those in the media almost no regular South Africans are actively protesting against the Media bill.
      This entire article is BS.

      Reply to Comment
    5. The South African Constitution says, in Chapter 2, Section 16,
      .
      16. Freedom of expression

      Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­
      freedom of the press and other media;
      freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
      freedom of artistic creativity; and
      academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

      The right in subsection (1) does not extend to ­
      propaganda for war;
      incitement of imminent violence; or
      advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.
      .
      Israel has no equivalent protection
      .
      Archbishop Tutu has condemned the bill (NYT, today).
      Crime is rife in South Africa; if I can believe an Indian from South Africa, she said that one of her relatives was shot outside of her house, and several others have been robbed. The Press incites anger and paranoia, but this bill covers State declared “secrets’; most importantly, a journalist given such secrets, reporting them, could be imprisoned. Generally but not universally, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the press may not be punished for material given to them.
      .
      Shaun, above, seems right that the presentation of the link between Israel and South Africa in the piece is not perhaps the best. But there remains a parallel, as suggested by the NYT piece:
      .

      “These are the toughest times,” said Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press, a weekly newspaper here. “Across the board, I think you see attempts to curtail media freedom and free expression.”
      Ms. Haffajee said she believed that the legislation reflected the vulnerabilities felt by the A.N.C., which has been the dominant party in South African politics since 1994. It is instinctive, she said, “for people in power to attempt to stifle the media when it makes exposures that are uncomfortable.”
      link:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/world/africa/south-african-parliament-to-vote-on-press-law.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2
      .
      The State has its side, of course, and the piece reports it. I note only that the press in South Africa, no matter how vile, may appeal to their Constitution. Israeli press have not this option.

      Reply to Comment

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