South Africa's assembly passes 'secrecy bill,' stirring journalists' fears

Journalists and civic groups warn that the Protection of Information or 'secrecy bill,' will criminalize investigative journalism. The government says it will bolster South Africa's national security.

By , Staff writer

South Africa’s National Assembly passed a bill on Tuesday that would “protect” state information and potentially impose 25-year criminal sentences on journalists who publish or possess state documents that the South African government deems to be secret.

The ruling African National Congress hailed the bill as a necessary measure to protect South Africa’s national security information from foreign spies. But news organizations and civil society groups saw the bill’s passage as a dangerous weakening of the hard-fought freedoms South Africans gained after the fall of the apartheid government.

During legislative debate, opposition Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said, "If passed, this bill will unstitch the very fabric of our constitution. It will criminalize the freedoms that so many of our people fought for."

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The Protection of Information bill still has one final step before becoming law – it must also pass in South Africa’s upper house, the National Council of Provinces, which the ANC also controls. But it has already begun to reverberate in the political consciousness of many South Africans.

Former Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the bill “insulting” to ordinary South Africans. Nelson Mandela’s office also issued a statement voicing concerns about aspects of the bill. Even the mere debate over a protection of information bill prompted the American think tank Freedom House to downgrade South Africa’s ranking to “partly free” earlier this year.

The Protection of Information bill, together with a twin bill that proposed a “Media Appeals Tribunal” to punish journalists for the harmful mistakes in their reporting, were both proposed several years ago, and have long remained in the “study and comment” phase within the ruling ANC. At times when the ANC’s relationship with news media becomes rocky, senior leaders have dusted off the legislation and proposed its passage, only to send it back to committee for further study.

But under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, the relationship between the media and the ANC has reached a nadir. Court cases against Mr. Zuma for corruption and rape prompted former President Thabo Mbeki to drop Zuma as his deputy prime minister, and many of Zuma’s supporters feel that the news media damaged Zuma’s reputation with its coverage of his trials. Corruption charges were dropped against Zuma for lack of evidence in September 2006, and a court acquitted Zuma of rape in May of the same year.  

Journalists were of course the most vocal in challenging the bill, and feel they are the ones most likely to feel the brunt of the proposed bill’s criminal sanctions.

“It is very disappointing that the members of parliament decided not to listen to the very diverse, very loud chorus of voices against this bill,” says Nic Dawes, editor of the Johannesburg-based weekly Mail and Guardian. “If this bill is passed in its present form, journalists will be required to choose between what their vocation requires them to do on one hand, or avoiding the very real possibility of jail sentences of up to 25 years. This is not a choice that should be imposed on journalists in a democracy.”

In Cape Town, activists wore black clothes or armbands to show their concern over the bill, while on Twitter, words like “secrecy,” “censored,” and “democracy” were among the terms most often tweeted. South African newspapers printed a joint statement on their front pages, warning about what they called South Africa’s “day of reckoning.”

Mr. Dawes and other journalists argue that the bill will effectively criminalize investigative journalism, by allowing government officials to use the ruse of national secrets to hide either mistakes or outright corrupt practices. But some political analysts note that the new bill specifically forbids public officials from using the secrecy provisions to cover up corruption.

“This is not going to affect the media,” says Steven Friedman, a longtime political analyst and director of the University of Johannesburg’s Center for the Study of Democracy. “I think the current bill will be bad for freedom, but I don’t think it’s any worse than any of the legislation passed in the US or Britain after 9/11.”

The dangers of the current bill are more apparent for citizen’s advocacy groups, and particularly those with less access to funding, such as a shack-dweller’s association in a poor black township.

“If shack-dwellers wanted to find out where the money was spent that was meant to fix their roads and sanitation, and a public official said, ‘Oh no, this information is classified,’ it is unlikely those shack-dwellers would have the access to money to launch an investigation the way a major newspaper would,” says Mr. Friedman.

But Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele says that passage of the Protection of Information bill, in its present form, is necessary to protect the interests of all South Africans, rich and poor, from the actions of South Africa’s foreign enemies.

“This new bill is not about regulating the media,” wrote Mr. Cwele, in a column on the ANC’s public website. The bill, he says, is about “spies.”

“The foreign spies continue to steal our sensitive information in order to advantage their nations at the expense of advancement of South Africa and her people,” Cwele wrote. “The truth has now become obvious for all to see as to what drives us in enacting the Protection of Information Bill. This is to repeal the apartheid law, deal with espionage, information peddling, provide for the classification and declassification of information, establish an independent Classification Review Panel and continue to balance the public interests of national security and access to information.”

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