(HN, June 12, 2011) - Opposition to a proposed secrecy bill - also known as the Protection of Information Bill - is presenting the Government in South Africa with one of its biggest-ever challenges.
Observers describe the bill as sweeping in its powers to muzzle civil society, as well as the media; possibly a knee-jerk reaction to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to stinging criticism from the media and civil society - as well as published embarrassing details about the private life of President Jacob Zuma.
Tensions between the Zuma Administration and mainstream media have reached a boiling point. One observer told HUMNEWS Zuma sees the media as essentially an elite, white-dominated entity - hostile to a predominantly black government.
The Bill is a revised version of a 2008 piece of proposed legislation that was withdrawn after protests that it would give state bodies too much leeway to quash information.
The Bill establishes serious hurdles for the media and civil society to obtain information about official corruption mismanagement and government service delivery issues. It gives government officials wide powers to prevent disclosure in the interests of “national security” which is broadly defined to cover a vast array of information.
The Bill applies to all organs of the state, including national and provincial government departments, independent commissions, municipal and local councils and forums. It empowers the Minister of State Security to “prescribe broad categories and sub-categories” to classify information to prevent it from entering the public sphere. The heads of government departments are further empowered to put in place departmental policies, directives and categories for the purpose of classifying and declassifying information.
Under the Bill, journalists who publish classified information could face draconian punishments ranging up to 25 years in prison for a host of offences, including obtaining, possessing, intercepting and disclosing classified information. A proposed media tribunal would be empowered to punish journalists.
One analyst described the provisions on media as "the most dangerous assault on media freedom since the end of apartheid."
The popular South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro - also known as Zapiro - said he has produced stinging depictions of Zuma because he feels strongly about the serious threat posed by the bill. “Silencing the media and whistle blowers is terrible. I wanted to communicate the need to fight for freedom of expression and free speech. I’m angry and upset about the bill. The whole of society will be badly affected. It’s appalling and it’s not what our constitution stands for," Shapiro was quoted as saying.
According to Southern African NGO Network (SANGONeT), South African journalists and civil society activists are extremely anxious about their ability to pursue their quest for the truth in the future.
Dale McKinley, an independent writer, researcher, lecturer and political activist based in Johannesburg, voiced in a column what many people in South Africa have to say about the Bill.
Wrote McKinley: "It is clear that unless many more speak out now, the ANC will use its parliamentary majority to pass a Bill that will 'normalise' the gagging of the very democracy that so many inside and outside this country struggled and sacrificed to realise...Everyone needs to stand up, speak out and put a stop to what now represents an enforced 'marriage' of elite convenience."
In recent weeks, several civil society organisations, political parties and ordinary people have publicly voiced their opposition to the Bill, effectively forcing the ANC as the key backer to temporarily extend the time frame for the Bill's passage by two more months.
One international petition currently being circulated online says the Bill "could take South Africa back to the dark days of impunity -- allowing government institutions to operate without public scrutiny, and stopping the media from exposing corruption, and abuse of power."
The ANC has been ridiculed for arguing that their Bill is on the same footing as similar legislation in countries such as Zimbabwe.
A little over a month, McKinley says, during a sitting of the parliamentary ad-hoc committee tasked with processing the Secrecy Bill, ANC MP Vytjie Mentor energetically argued that Zimbabwe was a good example of how information could be successfully kept secret and thus was worthy of the committee's closer attention as it fashioned South Africa's own secrecy legislation.
Western diplomats have also voiced concern. Last year US Ambassador Donald Gipps suggested the proposed BIll would be a step backwards after hard-won battles to create a model constitution. He said: "South Africa must not turn away from that history now."
Some segments of the business community are worried that the bill could give state-owned organs, such as South African Airways, a competitive edge if it allows them to suppress information about internal operations.
Last year, the state-owned electricity utility, expressed concern, saying restrictions on sharing commercial information under the Bill could complicate negotiations with foreign investors.
One observer told HUMNEWS that, even if the Bill passes, it could face significant challenges from the country's Constitutional Court.
- By a HUMNEWS correspondent in Johannesburg, with files.