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Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Global Toolbox

South Africa secrecy bill threatens press freedom

By Bruce Swaffield

Journalists in South Africa say that new legislation, popularly called a secrecy bill, will threaten freedom of the press.

Government officials contend it will protect the country and its citizens.

On the surface, the bill seems simple: “To provide for the protection of certain information from destruction, loss or unlawful disclosure; to regulate the manner in which information may be protected; to repeal the Protection of Information Act, 1982; and to provide for matters connected therewith.”

The ramifications of these words, meticulously spelled out in a 28-page document, are enormous. This issue has sparked debate and controversy ever since it was introduced in March 2010. The next and final step for the nation’s “Protection of Information Bill” is for President Jacob Zuma to sign it into law.

To find out more, I sent emails to dozens of journalists, professors, attorneys and officials. I wanted to know how people felt and what will happen in the coming days and weeks. Here are some of the responses.

“The protection of state information bill reflects the rising state of paranoia in the Zuma regime. Under the guise of protecting the citizenry from harm, this bill chooses to criminalise whistleblowers and journalists who might expose corruption or abuse of power by politicians and public servants. We as journalists and editors will fight this bill as it is an infringement of our constitutional right to freedom of expression and an infringement of the citizens’ right to know.” — Heather Robertson, editor, The Herald, Nelson Mandela Bay and surroundings

“Does it arbitrarily censor journalists? In this case, the answer is possibly. Due to a lack of proper definition and a wide granting of powers/discretion, journalists may be severely hampered when documents are arbitrarily classified.

“If recklessly used by corrupt state servants, [the bill] could run the risk of censorship of journalists in the short run, although not in the long-term, as other checks and balances are already in place. ... However, a lot is still to happen. The constitutionality of the legislation, or just simply the method and manner of interpreting and applying its provisions, have yet to be tested by our courts, and I believe that such cases will be heard sooner rather than later.”Pieter Koornhof, lecturer, Department of Mercantile & Labour Law; law faculty, University of Western Cape; attorney of the High Court of South Africa

“The bill in its present form will undoubtedly hamper and impede the work of investigative journalists in revealing the rampant corruption which plagues this country at the moment. And it is my opinion that it is being altered to ensure such corruption can continue without the close scrutiny it now receives.” Bruce Cooper, freelance journalist, editor, copy writer and proofreader

“One of the rights for which people fought in the struggle against apartheid was the right to freedom of information. This is essential to any democracy, and many of us remember how it was drastically curtailed under the apartheid-era National Party government. The present version of this bill, though somewhat improved, still does not provide protection for 'whistle-blowers' who are acting in the public interest. There are fears that this will limit exposure of high-level corruption. The ANC's (African National Congress) unwillingness to further amend the bill is cause for deep concern.” Rob Gaylard, senior lecturer, emeritus, Stellenbosch University

“The Protection of State Information bill, if passed in its current form, signifies significant closures for our democracy. It would mean a less transparent and open society and one that is not in tandem with our progressive constitution. The ANC's to-ing and fro-ing on the issue signifies its ambivalence — on the one hand it wants to show the world that it is progressive; on the other, it is not happy about the free flow of information which impacts on its image and how it is portrayed in the media.

“Last month we heard that there would be a public interest defence clause – to protect journalists and whistleblowers, meaning that there would be no criminalization through investigations, and exposures of wrong doing, and this month we hear that the State Security Agency has rejected these more progressive amendments. The arguments in the name of national security are spurious.

“It looks like the whole issue has been postponed till September. In a nutshell, the ANC seems to be terribly embarrassed by the exposures of corruption within its ranks; it would prefer to cover this up — and what better way to do this than with this secrecy bill — which will sadly just take us back to the dark old days of apartheid. The bill must be fought with all civil society's might.” Dr. Glenda Daniels, senior researcher, Wits Journalism School

If you as a fellow journalist would like to express your thoughts and concerns about the bill, please email Mr. Ebrahim Rasool, ambassador, Embassy of the Republic of South Africa, in Washington, D.C., at amb.washington@dirco.gov.za. Or you can direct your comments to Ms. Delsey Sithole, the private secretary to President Zuma, at delsey@po.gov.za. In addition, you may read the entire bill online.

 

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