Dark day for freedom in South Africa

Charl du Plessis

ALMOST 14 years ago to the day, former president Nelson Mandela told journalists press freedom would never be under threat in South Africa as “long as the ANC is the majority party”.

That was on November 19 1997, but that all looks set to change now, with the ANC intent on passing its feared Protection of State Information Bill through the National Assembly today.

Prominent human rights activist Rhoda Kadalie lashed out at the ANC yesterday, saying it had confused what was in the best interests of the public with what was in the best interests of the party.

“When liberation democratic parties feel threatened, they go for the judiciary, they go for the media and they go for freedom of speech,” Kadalie said.

Political parties, media organisations, civil society groups and trade unions say the bill will stifle the right of the media and whistle-blowers to expose corruption.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu added his voice to the growing chorus of opposition to the bill ahead of the vote this afternoon.

“I appeal to our MPs, please hear the disquiet this proposed piece of legislation has caused,” Tutu said.

“Please hear the warnings of the academics, civil society leaders, labour representatives, media corps, and legal and constitutional experts. This law will do our people and our country a disservice. By voting for it today, members of the ruling party will be doing themselves and their party a grave disservice.”

He said while a state was entitled to keep information outside the public domain in instances where publication might jeopardise state security, if the legal mechanism created to protect state security advertently or inadvertently prevented criminality from being exposed, the mechanism was “patently flawed”.

 “The Protection of State Information Bill is not only flawed, it is insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism, that contains no public benefit defence clause, and that makes the state answerable only to the state.

“This is not to suggest that those presently holding the reins of power intend to use the legislation to muzzle anyone or to cover anything up.

“But, equally, there are presently a sufficient number of investigations [to the credit of government] into alleged corruption by members of this and previous governments to warrant treading with extra care.”

Editors from around the country are in Cape Town today to join a picket outside parliament by the Right2Know campaign – a nationwide coalition of individuals and organisations opposed to the bill.

And the National Press Club’s campaign calling on South Africans to wear black in protest against the bill had gone viral on social networks by last night. The ANC is expected to use its majority in the National Assembly to pass the bill, which makes provision for the classification of state information and imposes stiff penalties of up to 25 years’ imprisonment on people found with classified information.

The SA National Editors’ Forum wrote to all members of parliament this morning, urging them to vote against the legislation.

The letter stated that, despite important work on the bill in the past 18 months, there were still “serious remaining flaws” in it.

Chief among these was the lack of a public interest defence .

“In its current form, the bill represents an attack on principles of open democracy that are deeply embedded in our constitution and our national life,” it said.

The SA Municipal Workers’ Union said the bill would “disadvantage whistle-blowers and workers who are fighting corruption”.

It called on all unions “to ensure that the secrecy bill does not become law”.

“The bill is not ready to be signed into law and is set to negatively affect the noble fight against corruption.”

If the bill became law, it would not only enable a whole range of municipal documents to be classified as secret, but would also serve to protect those who were “misusing their positions for private and nefarious gain”.

The coalition had planned protests in Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and Cape Town. Pick n Pay chairman Gareth Ackerman said business had to speak out against the bill as it posed a threat to the constitution and could be damaging to foreign investment.

Ackerman also criticised the public consultation process as nothing more than “meetings in the provinces”.

“It really is essential that those opposed to it speak up now, particularly in favour of the insertion of a public interest defence clause.

“Business can only flourish in a society where the flow of information is free and unfettered by undue state control.”

 He said the fact that more than 400 organisations had put their weight behind fighting the bill in the Constitutional Court was a sign of the “grave mistrust South Africans have in the bill”.

A joint statement, issued by activist groups Equal Education, the Treatment Action Campaign, Section27, the Social Justice Campaign and Ndifuna Ukwazi, said if the bill became law “members of parliament will be saying to South Africans it is okay to punish the people who disclose and write about corruption and mismanagement in government and the corporate sector”.

Dene Smuts, the DA spokesman for justice and constitutional development, said she still hoped there would be further discussions on and amendments to the bill.

The ANC has defended the bill in its current form, with chief whip Mathole Motshekga’s office saying yesterday the lack of a public interest defence was in line with “international best practice” and a “serious country” would not “compromise the security of its citizens for the sake of a scoop for the media”.

But AfriForum deputy chief executive Ernst Roets said the organisation had renewed its appeal to President Jacob Zuma to refer the bill to the Constitutional Court for an order as to its constitutionality before it was passed.

City Press said public protector Thuli Madonsela had written to speaker Max Sisulu to raise her concerns about public complaints she had received on the bill.

Madonsela’s spokesman, Kgalalelo Masibi, said she had decided that if the bill was passed into law without the recommended changes she would ask Zuma to intervene, the newspaper reported.

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