Without media freedom, democracy withers

Attacks on the media are mounting around the globe.

Attacks on the media are mounting around the globe.

EVERY democracy likes to boast that its media are free. And without news media that can report and comment freely, democracy and representative government would be impossible. What governments acknowledge to be necessary, however, is not necessarily what they like to encourage. Sometimes, indeed, they do whatever they can to frustrate those who try to keep citizens informed and thereby keep elected representatives accountable.

In South Africa this week, the ruling African National Congress used its majority in the lower house of parliament to push through the Protection of State Information Bill. The title is at least honest, for the bill creates what is effectively the opposite of a freedom-of-information regime. It makes leaking, possessing or publishing classified information a crime, and imposes penalties of up to 25 years' jail on whistleblowers and journalists who are convicted of the new offence.

Opponents of what has been dubbed the ''secrecy bill'' say it is the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid in 1994 that effectively dismantles part of South Africa's democracy. Nor are the opponents limited to journalists, editors and opposition MPs. A group representing Nelson Mandela, the country's first post-apartheid president and a Nobel peace laureate, also attacked the bill, as did another renowned anti-apartheid campaigner and peace laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. ''It is insulting,'' the archbishop said, ''to be asked to stomach legislation ? that makes the state answerable only to the state.''

The South African government has shrugged off the criticism, insisting it has no intention of curbing free expression. The same assurance has been given by the Netanyahu government in Israel, where this week a bill toughening the country's libel laws received a first reading in the Knesset. The law would increase maximum payouts from approximately $A13,500 to more than $A80,000, and allow complainants to sue media outlets for libel without having to prove that a published or broadcast report had caused them damage.

Mr Netanyahu said that ''as long as he is Prime Minister Israel will continue to be an exemplary and resilient democracy. No one will dictate what to think, what to write, what to investigate, and what to broadcast.'' Israeli journalists, however, were not the only ones to doubt his sincerity. A senior member of the government press office's advisory council, Eva Berger, resigned, saying that press freedom was being eroded, and several thousand protesters rallied against the law change in Tel Aviv. Speakers at the rally described the defamation bill as an attack on democracy.

The media inquiries under way in Britain and Australia are unlikely to result in anything as draconian as the legislation now being enacted in Israel and South Africa. And in the British case, even the perpetrators of the actions that sparked the inquiry, the hacking of private phones, do not try to pretend that this conduct was justifiable. Understandable public outrage at the hacking scandal, however, has encouraged opportunistic politicians in both countries to call for greater media regulation, without saying precisely what they intend. In the US, first amendment protection of press freedom prevents shackling of the media, but politicians' hostility has been no less evident. Bradley Manning, who is accused of having provided diplomatic cables to the WikiLeaks website, has been widely vilified and will face a military court, charged with aiding the enemy. So far, however, the US has suffered nothing worse than profound embarrassment from publication of the cables.

As The Age has argued before, the public, not governments or regulators, are the best arbiters of media conduct. Across the globe, the assaults on media freedom differ; the threat to democracy if they succeed, however, is the same.

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