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New South African Secrecy Law Sparks Outrage

  • Peta Thornycroft

A protester holds a placard reading 'I Love Secrets' during a anti secrets bill protest at parliament in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, November 22, 2011.

A protester holds a placard reading 'I Love Secrets' during a anti secrets bill protest at parliament in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, November 22, 2011.

South African activists are vowing to defend media freedom after the parliament Tuesday passed a state secrets bill that opponents say will stop media from exposing public corruption. The legislation - designed by the ruling African National Congress - has sparked protests from all sectors of society and political opinion.

There are few influential people in South Africa outside of the ANC, and even some in the party, who are happy about the new secrecy law which was adopted in parliament by a vote of 229 to 107 Tuesday.

Raymond Louw, veteran former anti-apartheid editor and media activist - declared a “hero” by the International Press Institute in August - says the law is a betrayal of the ANC’s commitment to press freedom.

“The intention of this bill is to stop the media from disclosing corruption, malpractice and misgovernance, and inefficiencies. It is a betrayal of the commitment to a free press and the constitutional commitment to a free press because it is so wide ranging," said Louw. "And it is not reasonable for them to want to cover up secrets beyond those which are absolutely necessary for protection of national security.”

Censorship

The legislation bans the release of classified documents - even if the information could be in the public’s benefit. Anyone involved in publishing such information could face 25 years in prison.

Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, is concerned that the bill emerged because of the growing power of the security sector within President Jacob Zuma’s administration.

"What you are seeing here is a long process in which the intelligence people and security people have been battling with various political interests and right now the intelligence people and security people have won," said Friedman. "That is consistent with the general pattern of the Zuma administration in which he has appointed people very close to him in security positions and tends to give them as much leeway as they want.”

Implications

Academic and public speaker, Eusebius McKaiser says the implications of the bill would undermine South Africa’s open society.

“The first and the most important is that the bill will have negative consequences for South Africa’s democracy in the sense that it will allow for less information about what the state is up to in the public space," said McKaiser. "It gives too much power to securocrats over national decisions. That is nonsense even the securocrats need to have systems in place to check whether they are abusing their power and the bill doesn’t speak to that.”

Critics of the bill held street protests at the ANC headquarters Tuesday clad in black. The National Press Club of South Africa ran a Twitter campaign asking if the country wished to continue with the “Black Tuesday” protest every week until the law is repealed. The Press club says 99% of respondents supported the idea.

Outrage

But it is not just journalists who are outraged.

Launching her new book Wednesday, The African National Congress and the Regeneration of Political Power, author and political scientist Professor Susan Booysen from the University of the Witwatersrand said the demonstrations against the secrecy bill were extraordinary because they crossed so many shades of public opinion.

“Yesterday [Tuesday] was an incredibly important day. We have not seen this kind of unity between civil society, opposition parties, dissenting voices on the left coming together. We have not seen this kind of unity in action," she said. "This kind of united action makes an impression on people’s minds, makes them look up and turn around twice when the ANC says certain things. So I think as a general contribution to change in political culture I think it was a huge day in South African politics.”

South African Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu has called the bill “insulting.”

Amnesty International has also condemned the bill as fatally flawed and unconstitutional. The London-based group says it “will severely limit the crucial right of journalists and whistle blowers to expose corruption.”

Justification

Friedman says ANC politicians justify the secrecy bill by saying South Africa was under threat from spies.

“Both the head of the parliamentary committee and the minister himself and some of their supporters continuously tell us that we are being overrun by foreign spies threatening our security. There is no evidence to support this," said Friedman. "We have no enemies at all. If there is any threat to stability, it comes from inside rather than outside and clearly we have a record of intelligence services getting involved in political disputes. This is about protecting intelligence people from public scrutiny. “

At the same time Friedman says the secrecy bill does not actually prohibit journalists from reporting corruption and notes the media is guilty of what he called a "sloppy" interpretation of the bill.

Before it becomes law, the secrecy bill goes to the second chamber, the National Council of Provinces - where the ANC also has a massive majority.

The National Press Club and other opponents are vowing to take the matter all the way to the highest judicial body - the Constitutional Court.

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