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Bloggers, freelance writers and social commentators could have their work criminalised if the Protection of Personal Information Bill is passed.
Although the bill has included a journalistic exemption, it does not make provisions for any citizen not governed, by virtue of employment, by a code of ethics.
The bill, which is expected to become law this year, threatens in its current form to prevent the growth of citizen journalism.
In the age of the internet and the social media – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, among them – that it has spawned, media experts say the bill could prove impractical.
The bill has been met with significant opposition due to its potential to constrain the extent to which journalists can accurately and fairly report on activities of the state in particular.
“Citizen journalists who publish via their own sites or blogs are not aligned to any professional code and as such any piece of journalism, be it a video clip or photograph or even an article, may be subject to prosecution if it is perceived to have breached the bill,” said Dinesh Balliah, New and Social Media lecturer at Wits Journalism School.
Balliah said the journalism establishment is rapidly expanding to include “crowdsourcing” – the outsourcing of tasks to a distributed group of people online or offline – particularly since online (the internet) now represents a significant challenge to more established forms of media.
“Crowdsourcing stands to take a step backwards should this bill be passed as it will mean that the canvassing of sources from a non-journalist may be open to prosecution.” she said.
If the bill became law, it would require extensive information policing mechanisms.
“Unless we go the route of the Chinese state where the internet is regulated and censored extensively, I cannot see how the enforcement of the provisions of the bill will be balanced against individual rights to freedom of information,” Balliah said.
“The practice of journalism in any country can only flourish where basic freedoms like the right to access of information and expression are guaranteed.”
Anton Harber, professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, and chairman of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), said a bill that offered exemptions for working journalists raised interesting and complex issues about how one defined a journalist.
“Give a journalist special privileges and you are denying them to ordinary citizens.”
Harber said the bill was impractical in the age of the internet when it is easy for anyone to do the work of a journalist. He said careful consideration was needed to ensure it did not backfire.
Popular South African blog, ThinkFreeSA, also commented on the bill, saying: “People who freely choose to act as a citizen will have to follow the bill to the word, otherwise they will likely end up in hot water.”
The administrator of the blog, who did not reveal his identity said: “The bill is great for government and their corporate buddies. They get to add even more verbiage to the current mammoth amounts of paper garbage out there called ‘laws’ and then use them to justify not following the common, ethical and decent laws of man.
“Rules like this and many others have been designed to act as a buffer between the people and creating a sensible world.”