PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma has announced the establishment of a communications working group consisting of members of the media to discuss media and economic issues and improve the flow of information to the public, a move that has the approval of the South African National Editors Forum.

Until now, the media have protested against restrictive legislation by issuing statements or making representations to parliamentary committees. Some of the media objections are taken note of and amendments are made, but the results never entirely satisfy journalists.

The questions about how the group will operate and what avenues it opens to the media arise because, while announcing the setting up of this mechanism, Zuma has before him for signing the Protection of State Information Bill, which journalists have rightly opposed and dubbed the "Secrecy Bill".

Journalists who have opposed the legislation since it was first introduced to Parliament six years ago fear it will result in the opposite of what Zuma is setting out to do with his working group.

Journalists have asked Zuma to refer the legislation to the Constitutional Court but, in the meantime, he and his colleagues in the government have latched onto a scheme that in some ways renders the bill superfluous — they have simply stopped making information available or have issued obfuscating statements that leave people confused.

A prime example of how that process works has been the manner in which SA was told about the signing of a nuclear agreement with Russia. The information came to South Africans from Russian nuclear power agency Rosatom after our energy minister had stepped out of a nuclear energy conference in Vienna and met the Russians for an unpublicised signing ceremony. Usually, a momentous announcement of that kind would have been made in Parliament before the signing ceremony and after the detail and the intentions had been clearly mapped out.

The next question that arises is what information he proposes to release and how he assesses its public interest value. How does he ensure that it is accurate? In the past few days, we have seen an example of the kind of information he wants to see widely distributed but which shows an inability to be accurate while at the same time serving his self-interest.

Since the announcement, South Africans have been floundering around trying to find out what exactly was signed, what deal is in the offing, and what consequences are likely to flow from it.

This obfuscation of public interest information follows years of strenuous attempts by opposition parties and nongovernmental organisations to gather information from government departments, which refuse or raise other obstacles to prevent the information entering the public domain. Those requesting information have been forced to use the courts to get information out of officials.

So how is Zuma going to contend with this heavy obstructionism while he lives up to his professed objective for the working group to provide the public with the maximum information?

The next question that arises is what information he proposes to release and how he assesses its public interest value. How does he ensure that it is accurate? In the past few days, we have seen an example of the kind of information he wants to see widely distributed but which shows an inability to be accurate while at the same time serving his self-interest.

I refer to his remarks at a luncheon with journalists on October 19, when he celebrated the role journalists had played in bringing about democracy in SA during a commemoration of Black Wednesday, October 19 1977, the day the former National Party government cracked down on critical black-edited media, their editors and political opponents.

Some of those remarks raise questions about the tone of the discussions likely at the working group meetings for he spent some time chastising the media for their "persecution" of him and the coverage of the R246-million security upgrade to his home in Nkandla. He felt they had exaggerated what had happened at Nkandla and compared the expense with the building of an airport at George, which he claimed had no commercial basis but was for the convenience of then president PW Botha, who had a home 23km away. Beeld newspaper took the trouble to check Zuma’s claims and found them inaccurate. It said it consulted parliamentary records, which showed that the airport was built after a careful investigation of Mossel Bay, Oudtshoorn and George as sites — before Botha bought his home at The Wilderness.

In this light, what steps will Zuma and his officials take to ensure that the information he wishes the working group to provide to the public is accurate?

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