Free speech in trouble in South Africa
23 November 2011
South Africa’s Protection of Information Bill is about to be transformed into a new secrecy law as it was pushed through parliament yesterday, Jan Raath reports in the Times. See our previous post on the details of the law’s scope and potential chilling effect on investigative journalism and whistleblowers.
In essence, if this bill becomes law it would allow any organ of state, from the largest government department down to the smallest municipality, to classify any document as secret and set out harsh penalties of up to 25 years in jail for whistleblowers.
Raath quotes Siyabonga Cwele, the Security Minister, as declaring last week that South Africa had been under
an increased threat of espionage since 1994 when it adopted a non-racial democratic Constitution. He denounced opponents of the Bill as “proxies of foreign spies”.
The South African weekly Mail and Guardian, thorn in the side of the current government and the apartheid regime alike, is running a fascinating column on what it calls the “story killer”, cataloguing the “hypothetical body count” of the stories that would never have seen the light of day if the law had been in force at the time. But even this courageous newspaper had to redact significant sections of a recent report said to detail fresh evidence of corruption in an arms deal allegedly involving President Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj (pictured above). This was in response to threats made by Maharaj’s lawyer under the current gagging law, a provision under the national prosecuting process which makes it an offence to disclose certain information gathered in the course of an investigation, irrespective of public interest. The Protection of State Information Bill will make it even more difficult to publish such stories.
“I think what has happened this week gives you a very clear sense of what it’s going to be like under the Secrecy Law if it’s adopted without a public interest defence”, says Mail and Guardian editor Nic Dawes.
It’s going to force newspapers and even activists and other people who want to get information out to the public to hold back when they really should be exposing serious crimes, corruption, maladministration, hypocrisy and it really goes against every fibre of a journalistic being and the core value of the constitution to impose that kind of limitation
The Bill has to go through a few more hurdles; in South African parlance it will now go to National Council of Provinces and then back to the National Assembly before the president signs it and it gets gazetted. But the Mail reports that things don’t look good:
Sources within Parliament say that, despite protest from media and civil groups from around the country, the passing of the Bill is a foregone conclusion and that it may become law before the end of the year.
The nationwide protests and the vociferous objections to the bill in Parliament have therefore probably been to no avail. It is always open to those who oppose the Bill to take a challenge in the Constitutional Court, but as politician and former Minister Kadar Asmal pointed out before his death earlier this year, it is “unsatisfactory” to expect the Constitutional Court to do the work that Parliament should be doing.
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