The power of campaigns: Secrecy Bill in South Africa

The power of campaigns: Secrecy Bill in South Africa

Date: October 6, 2011
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While positive signals elsewhere in the continent show that governments are embracing principles of free access to information, South Africa (SA) seems to be retrogressing. The controversial Protection of Information Bill dubbed as “Secrecy Bill” by critics is one major cause of SA’s “sad” development.

Critics argue that the bill which has been in the public domain since 2010 will not only affect the media as it might be presumed but civil society, the academia and members of the public just to mention a few. As Journalism Professor at Witwatersrand University, Anton Harber argues: “It is not just a battle for journalists and the media to do their job; it is a battle for citizens to be empowered by information and be able to assert their rights and aspirations. It is not just a battle for freedom of speech, but a fight to ensure our democracy is an open, participative and collaborative one, rather than a top-down authoritarian one.”

This perhaps calls for further concerted support and appreciation to the work of the Right2Know Campaign, a civil society coalition created to oppose the passing of the bill. The grouping has been advocating for further review of this draconian law since the ruling Africa National Congress tabled it last year.

Numerous Right2Know campaigns, demonstrations and petitions with support from members of the public, politicians, academics and the media have seen the ANC moving back and forth in rewriting some of clauses of the bill. Critics of the bill argue that “it is unconstitutional because it fails to include a public interest defence clause” among other interests.

However, one wonders why the ANC is bulldozing a bill that contradicts with core principles of SA’s hard-won democracy. Freedom of speech, debate, and enquiry is amongst the core principles of democracy and any effort that impinges upon this, like the Protection to Information Bill, needs not to be condoned in the 21st Century democracy.
Ironically, politicians particularly in Africa have been coming-up with undemocratic laws for “selfish” reasons. Recently, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Malawi amended section 49 of the Penal Code and made it into law though undemocratic. The law empowers the Information Minister to shut down any newspaper that publishes information that s/he deems “contrary to the public interest.” Critics believe that the law is meant to silence the newspaper industry which has been very critical on governance issues in the country.

Should the public therefore speculate that the ANC has a hidden agenda behind this bill? Is this not retrogression by SA which according to Freedom House was once a role model in the region for having press freedom until 2009?

The Secrecy Bill if made into a law will not only deny SA citizens their right to access and disseminate information but development as well. Imagine NGOs, researchers, academicians, the corporate world and members of the general public failing to conduct campaigns, research, business and any other activities because they cannot use or access “classified information” because of Protection of Information law?

Whether the “Secrecy Bill” ultimately becomes a law or not, politicians should bear in mind that a bill once passed into a law “does not stay in the statute books only for one administration or one term of government”, says Ayesha Kajee, former executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute. “It stays well into the future…history has shown that repressive laws are not usually misused by the administration that passes them but rather by administrations into the future”. This calls on politicians to come-up with laws that are democratic and contribute to the greater common good.
Meanwhile, the ANC is further reviewing the bill after the opposition legislatures accused it of wanting to use “clause 18” of the draft to force journalists to reveal to authorities sources who hand them classified information.

Contrary to SA development, Nigeria adopted a progressive freedom of information law in 2010 and Uganda passed an Access to Information Act in 2005. In 2010, Uganda debated the Whistle Blowers Protection Bill 2010, which is aimed to create an enabling environment for citizens to freely disclose information on corrupt or improper conduct in public and private sectors.

Campaigns are very powerful and we have seen this through the work of the Right2Know coalition. The delay in the process forces those who support suppression laws to rethink their motives.

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