Secret’s Out: S.A. Media’s Fight Against Secrecy Bill Continues

To provide for the protection of sensitive state information; to provide for a system of classification, reclassification and declassification of state information; to provide for the protection of certain valuable state information against alteration, destruction or loss or unlawful disclosure; to regulate the manner in which state information may be protected; to repeal the Protection of Information Act, 1982 (Act No. 84 of 1982); and to provide for matters connected therewith.” ~ the above excerpt was taken from the official Protection of State Information Bill document.

The Protection of State Information Bill, otherwise known as the ‘Secrecy Bill’, and the potential threats that it, if President Zuma decides to place his presidential signature on it, could have on the country and the state of the media is something that we, as South African citizens, should be properly conscious of and well-informed about.

Ever since its initial mention in 2011, our media, many civil society organisations – the Right2Know campaign being the most famous – and even local and global icons have frothed at the mouth over it and have consistently called for the Bill to be utterly scrapped, something that has prompted the President to think twice (most notably in September 2013 when he sent it back to the National Assembly for “reconsideration.”) and their public outcries and anger have brought some minor ‘improvements’ to it – but what about the general public? How do they feel about this Bill? Well, they’re either: unconcerned or confused – if they know about it at all, that is.

As Ranjeni Munusamy, Associate Editor of The Daily Maverick, said in September at the Open Book Festival, the public don’t quite understand why there’s so much controversy and contentious debate surrounding the Bill and furthermore, she senses that, “… the rest of South Africa is looking at us (the media) like, “Whatever,”… They don’t get why it’s such a big concern for us and what the impact will be… should President Zuma sign it.”

As a general rule, we only view things as matters of great concern when they directly affect us or literally infringe upon our basic human rights – and yet, this is precisely the effect the Bill – which was, according to Wikipedia.com, enacted by the National Assembly on the 22nd of November 2011, passed with amendments a year later by the National Council of Provinces, before, finally, on April 25th, 2013, its amended version was later approved by the Assembly – could have on our society… and indeed, on us.

This is why:

According to an article by The Guardian’s David Smith in 2012, the Bill “has been described as a draconian measure that will allow the governing African National Congress (ANC) to cover up corruption and send whistle-blowers and journalists to jail for up to 25 years.”

Okay, so that will affect the media and put the lives and careers of journalists at even greater risk but how will that really affect the public at large?

Well, for starters it could potentially mean that the government would be able to keep ‘secret’ whatever it decides the public does not ‘need’ to know. Now, I don’t know about you but, in my mind, that’s a recipe for national disaster.
Who gets to decide what information is withheld from us and precisely where will they draw the line on what is to be kept secret – and what is not?

Let’s pretend that, hypothetically, of couse, the government was to indeed have the right intentions at heart, such as working to shield the public or safeguarding the country’s national security – but whom can say where it will stop?

If a journalist decides to write an expose on, say, the abuse of governmental funds by its members, does the government get to deprive the public of such knowledge..? Do these fictional but corrupt members then receive sympathetic pats on the back, whilst the journalist, whose sole crime was that they wrote an article (oh, the horror!), gets jailed for anything from five – to twenty-five years, depending on the severity of their so-called ‘crime’?

If so, then the biggest South African stories of the past decade would not have been permitted to be covered, analysed, investigated or even discussed in any way or form.

These include but are not limited to: the controversial Nkandla and ‘Gupta Gate’ scandals, the Arms Deal investigation and subsequent commission of inquiry, the probe into Bheki Cele’s involvement in an unlawful £ 135 million deal, as well as many allegations and investigations linked to our President and his political cohorts.

As a young, aspirant journalist, I feel duty-bound to create, not just awareness of, but also public outrage for the Bill, because, both prior to and after its 2011 enactment, I have heard the alarm bells ringing loud and clear in my head.

Maybe it’s because it’s the job of the media to be concerned about things that ‘normal’ citizens barely pause to bat an eyelid at, maybe it’s because we have a moral obligation to keep the public suitably informed by exposing possible falsehoods, acts of corruption and controversy – or maybe it’s the fear of a return to the ‘dark ages’ (read: the Apartheid era) that sets my teeth on edge whenever I hear or think about the Bill – and I like to think that many of my fellow South Africans feel this way too, irrespective of their societal status or career choice(s)…

Now, what about those that are greatly informed, locally (and often globally too) famous and deeply respected – how do they feel towards the Bill?

Well, to give but one powerful example, in an interview with The Times earlier this year (before her death in July), Nadine Gordimer, 1991 Nobel Prize of Literature winner and close friend of the late, former President, Nelson Mandela, had this to say on the matter: “The reintroduction of censorship is unthinkable when you think how many people suffered to get rid of censorship in all its forms… And the fact that it’s called the Protection of State Information Bill is very disquieting. State information belongs to all of us – this is our right under the constitution. This has got nothing to do with betraying the safety of the country.”

Gordimer further voiced the alarming thought present in many of our minds and it is this: “If I invite friends around for dinner and we discuss the president’s involvement in the arms deal, could I be hauled off to prison? Our great cartoonists, our reporters and our artists all face uncertainty and the risk of jail… What we are doing now is going back to apartheid censorship under a new guise.”

When I asked Mr Murray Hunter, spokesperson for the Right2Know campaign and the Bill’s most vocal opponent, for his opinion, his thoughts echoed these highly worrying sentiments: “The Secrecy Bill is a symbol of the growing climate of secrecy and securitisation in South Africa. Globally we see a trend of new laws and policies being put in place that will have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression – and in South Africa there is a crisis of whistle-blowers being intimidated and silenced. This law will make their jobs even more difficult and potentially see them being prosecuted for espionage.”

(Many also believe that it will affect activists, lawyers and indeed, the public at large.)

As recently as the 20th of October, journalist Kevin Richie wrote that, on the ’20 Years of Media’ (or the ‘Black Wednesday’) commemoration, President Zuma said that the government “has recommitted itself to the recognition and protection of the freedom of expression, as enshrined in the constitution”.

He further claims that he wishes to continue to engage with the media and, as such, the government is (quote) “establishing a Presidential Communication and Media Working Group, which should be able to provide a platform for the sharing of ideas between government and the sector on any isaue.”

Excellent idea, Mr Zuma… but that’s simply not enough in the context of things. Until you publically refuse to sign the Bill – thus showing us that you are against it – you are neither for the Constitution, nor the freedom of expression that it endeavours to protect – and that’s really all that matters.

So, for now, the S.A. media’s fight against the Bill – and indeed for our democratic rights – is still very much on, for as Niels Bohr once said, “The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.”

Words, loud and powerful and strong, will be our choice of ammunition for this battle, as it’s something that South Africa (and yes, even the world) is highly unlikely to keep quiet about, so yes, the ambiguous ‘they’ can try to silence us but they won’t ever truly succeed – not now, not ever, for the secret is well and truly out…

Takin’ It to Church: Pictured below is a famous church a stone’s throw from Parliament in Cape Town with a banner against the Bill.

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