By Erna Curry
CAPE TOWN, Oct 27, 2010 (IPS) – A coalition of civil society groups marched to South Africa’s Parliament on Oct. 27 to protest against the draft version of a new Protection of Information Bill. “This bill is a betrayal of all the democratic principles we fought for,” anti-apartheid stalwart Kader Asmal told the crowd.
South Africa’s parliament is presently considering legislation to replace secrecy laws drawn up during the apartheid era.
Critics, under the banner of the Right 2 Know Campaign, say the bill could restrict the right to access information which is essential to holding government accountable.
“This bill is a charter for rogues. Because everyone from the president down to the local authority can designate bills, ideas, as confidential,” Asmal said.
“Nowhere in the world have you got town councillors being able to [do this]… You can’t have hundreds of people with the right to do that, you want a small number of people.”
The bill would criminalise those who pass on or possess classified information without authorisation, be they whistleblowers, journalists or ordinary citizens – even if the release of the information is judged to be in the public interest.
This could have a serious impact on freedom of the media, as journalists would risk prison terms of up to 25 years for possessing or publishing classified information: stiffer sentences than those prescribed for government officials who wrongfully conceals information.
Information about government contracts could potentially be deemed secret, blocking transparency in deals involving huge parastatal companies.
Excessively broad powers
Ayesha Kajee, the director of the Freedom of Expression Institute and a member of the campaign, is one of those who says that the bill in its current form is extremely problematic.
“It has a very broad, very vague definition of national interest that would ostensibly allow any head of any organ of government, anywhere in the country, at any level – national, local, provincial – to classify information on the basis that it’s in the national interest to make that information secret.”
These broad powers, activists say, could cripple popular struggles for social and economic rights. The campaign for expanded treatment and care for HIV/AIDS, for example, could be hindered by lack of information on a provincial health budget.
The Right 2 Know Coalition – which organised protest events and community meetings in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town in the week leading up to the Oct. 27 march – includes diverse community-based organisations, the HIV advocacy group the Treatment Action Campaign, and religious leaders, as well as the South African National Editors’ Forum, and the FXI.
Cape Town community activist Yusra Adams fears the bill will starve struggles for housing and better service delivery of vital information.
“The media is giving me information on the ground, they are the people that are making me alert of what is going on. If I am not reading I am not well informed.”
Activist Nkwame Cedile, who was involved in organising events, agrees. “This Bill will affect everything, from your councillor to your president, from the hospital to your library. It’s going to cast a blanket of darkness over information throughout government,” he said.
“And the danger, for me, is that it’s going to make it difficult for transparency and accountability and under any democracy transparency and accountability are the pilllars of that particular democracy.”
Appearing before the parliamentary committee reviewing the bill on Oct. 22, the Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele, stressed that citizens will still have recourse to access information through the Promotion of Information Act, PAIA.
“We are not against it… accessing information,” Cwele said, “we have said that again and again. That’s why there is a section in the bill that deals with override in terms of access, and we also made proposals to further the alignment with PAIA.”
A statement issued by the ministry proposed that the concept of “national interest” be removed from the bill, and that a definition for “commercial information” be adopted from the existing Promotion of Information Act. FXI’s Kajee is unimpressed by the minister’s defence.
“Currently government has to prove why something should be made secret. If this bill comes into law, the onus shifts to the citizen to show why something should not be secret,” she told IPS.
“That’s an unfair equation as government has huge resources, it has huge power in relation to the ordinary citizen.”
For Nic Dawes, editor of the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper, the bill recalls the apartheid era.
“We remember what it was like to live in a society of secrets. We remember that you can’t have true freedom and live your freedom without the right to know,” he said.
“There are those of them who say to us, well trust us, you have the freedom to trust us. We say that is not the freedom we fought for, in fact it’s not freedom at all.”