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The Associated Press September 8, 2010, 2:53PM ET

Wire agencies express concern on S.Africa media

Proposed measures that could restrict the work of journalists in South Africa and even allow for the jailing of reporters have drawn protests from a group of international news organizations.

The governing African National Congress has proposed a tribunal that could discipline journalists. The party, which has an overwhelming majority in parliament, also put forth legislation under which reporters could be jailed for publishing information that officials want kept secret.

The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg and Reuters told President Jacob Zuma in a letter sent last week they are concerned that the proposals "could restrict our work and the work of other journalists."

"The media in South Africa and foreign reporters working in the country told the world about the horrors of apartheid, despite intimidation, attempts at censorship and attacks by the white-led government," the agencies said in the letter, which also was sent to Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele.

"In lodging our concerns more than a decade and a half after apartheid ended, we add our voices to those defending press freedom and freedom of expression in South Africa and worldwide."

The president's office did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.

Zuma, when asked about the media tribunal in parliament Wednesday, stressed it was merely a proposal, one made with "the view that the right to freedom of expression should not be elevated above other equally important rights such as the right to privacy and more important rights and values, such as human dignity."

Many South Africans have protested the proposals, from unions who say they could undermine the fight against corruption to business leaders who say foreign investors could be scared off if they thought the government was trying to hide wrongdoing. South African journalists, religious and legal groups also have spoken out against it.

Some influential ANC leaders have said the media tribunal is merely being debated and is not necessarily party policy. But its proposal reflects tensions between the party in power since apartheid ended in 1994 and journalists who have disclosed corruption in high places -- and been accused of sloppy or biased reporting.

The Cabinet discussed the issue at its meeting last week, and stressed in a statement afterward that the bill "is yet to be finalized."

The Cabinet said the country's security minister "has been focusing on areas which may be broad and/or vague and which have the potential to infringe on other rights that are enshrined in the constitution."

It did not say when Cwele would weigh in on the bill or when parliament might vote on it.

Zuma, in a weekend interview with a South African newspaper, said the bill is being refined.

"I am sure the debate is helping," Zuma told the Sunday Times.

He also told the Times that the media tribunal had been proposed out of a desire to rein in sensationalist reporting and ensure that when reports were incorrect or unfair, corrections were given prominence.

He said the ANC wants the media to propose ways to address those issues.

Addressing journalists, he said: "I think you should accept that where there is freedom there must be responsibilities as well."

The France-based AFP, U.S.-based AP and Bloomberg and British-based Reuters are among the world's largest news agencies, with reporters and clients around the world.

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