News / Africa

WikiLeaks Concern for South African Freedom of Information Activists

They’re worried controversy will lead to state severely limiting access to information

Darren Taylor

As WikiLeaks continues to release heaps of United States government secrets, freedom of information advocates in South Africa are concerned the controversy will spur the country’s parliament on to pass a controversial “Secrecy Bill” into law.

“We’re concerned that the issues around WikiLeaks may drive the Ministry (of State Security) to suggest that even more information should be made classified,” says Alison Tilley, executive director of South Africa’s Open Democracy Advice Center.

ODAC’s website says it strives to “foster a culture of corporate and government accountability,” and seeks to achieve this “through realizing the (public’s) right to know.”

WikiLeaks Concern for South African Freedom of Information Activists
WikiLeaks Concern for South African Freedom of Information Activists

Earlier this year, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party introduced the Protection of Information Bill in parliament, and proposed the establishment of a “media tribunal” to “regulate” the country’s print media.

The moves resulted in nationwide protests from human rights and freedom of expression groups, as well as the public, who remain concerned that they’re the first steps towards an ANC clampdown on media freedom and a new age of censorship in South Africa.

In recent years, the country’s media has exposed several scandals implicating top ANC officials – including President Jacob Zuma – and businesspeople close to the ruling party, in a variety of crimes - including massive corruption.

The ANC denies it wants to curb media freedom, insisting its bill merely seeks to protect state secrets - the publication of which it insists could endanger South Africa’s security.

But legal, constitutional and access to information experts say the bill’s definition of a “state secret” is so broad that it could allow the ANC to prevent the media from reporting on a wide range of issues embarrassing to the government – including corruption and even personal scandals.

‘Criminalize the chain’

According to the bill, the media would not be able to publish a story based on a “secret” document, even one that shows that a government minister has stolen taxpayers’ money. Instead, the person who leaked the document would be punished: the possession of such a document is a crime that could result in prison terms of up to five years – for the journalist and the whistle-blower who leaked the document.

Tilley says if the South African bill becomes law, a lot of people could end up in jail for possessing information such as that published by WikiLeaks.

“Perhaps I went onto the website and downloaded information from the WikiLeaks website – that would make me liable; if I sent it to a colleague – that would make my colleague liable; if my colleague sent it to a newspaper – that would make the journalist liable. And presumably once the journalist publishes it and people buy and read the paper, it would make them liable too,” the lawyer explains.

“The principle that we want to introduce in terms of the bill is that the only person who is liable is the person who’s actually professionally responsible for keeping that secret - that is, the member of the security agency, the person in national intelligence,” she maintains.

Thus, according to ODAC, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, should not be charged with any crime linked to the publishing of the US government secrets. Only his alleged source – US intelligence analyst Bradley Manning – should be held responsible for the leak.

“Once the information is leaked, we think it’s completely wrong to try and criminalize everyone down the chain,” Tilley tells VOA. “That’s what the (South African) legislation does as it’s currently tabled.”

No ‘public interest defense’

Experts who’ve analyzed the South African bill say the fact that it doesn’t contain a “public interest defense” holds extremely serious consequences. This means that whistle-blowers and reporters can’t argue in court that the “secret” information they’ve revealed is in the public interest – even if such information shows evidence of damage to the environment or theft of taxpayers’ money, for examples.

“The Secrecy Bill says that in fact it doesn’t matter whether information’s in the public interest or not, it doesn’t matter what the (confidential) documents reveal - it could be anything up to genocide and you still would be criminally liable if you made the documents available in the public interest,” says Tilley.

Activists in South Africa argue that the South African government’s main motivation in drawing up the Bill is to prevent certain politician’s crimes from being exposed.

As few secrets as possible

Tilley says the instinct of security and intelligence agencies across the globe, including in South Africa and the US, is to try to keep increasing amounts of information secret. This is dangerous, she says … as Washington has discovered via WikiLeaks.

“We think that would be a very wrong analysis of what WikiLeaks should mean to security agencies,” she stresses. “We think what it means is that you must narrow your focus, and concentrate only on that information which it is absolutely essential that you keep secret because lives are at risk. Then you secure that information as completely as you can.”

ODAC’s stance is that governments should keep as few secrets as possible, and strive for “openness and transparency.”

“We think it improves decision-making; we think it allows people to participate in government more effectively; it allows them to advocate on issues more effectively; it allows better decisions around resources,” says Tilley. “The more transparency, the better the decisions that are made – both by people in power and by people who seek power.”

She adds, “The instinct of security agencies to try to keep more and more information classified simply means that there are more people in the tent. And the more people there are in the tent, the more difficult it is to keep information secure, and the more likely it is that there’s going to be a security risk, there’s going to be a leak, and somebody’s going to let slip the information.”

Abuse of secrecy clause

Tilley and ODAC are not suggesting that governments don’t have a right to keep certain information hidden from the public.

She says, “Governments do have secrets that they should legitimately keep. They keep those secrets in the interests of their citizens. They generally relate only to narrow security issues. If we have undercover policemen, for example, working in gangs to try and end gang violence or trying to end organized crime, we would accept that those identities need to be kept secret. This would benefit the public, in that criminal activity would be stopped.”

But Tilley says the “problem” is that once governments are entitled to keep secrets entirely at the state’s discretion “it seems to know no end” and is open to great abuse.

“(In South Africa), we have documents that go in front of local government (municipalities) that are automatically marked ‘secret,’ simply because they’re being dealt with by an executive committee in local government. That’s clearly wrong,” she says.

Tilley says in South Africa, officials – using the excuse that certain information should be kept secret in the interests of the state – have tried to keep tender documents secret.

“We’ve had people tell the Public Protector, she’s not entitled to documents because they’re classified so she can’t investigate corruption,” she says. “That’s precisely the misuse of classification which is problematic, and which we think will be probable – given the scope of the Secrecy Bill.”

South Africa’s Public Protector is appointed by the president to investigate complaints from the public against government agencies or officials.

Tilley hopes South Africa’s government, as it continues to try to limit access to information, learns some lessons from the leaking of more than 250,000 US government secrets to WikiLeaks.

“It shows that it’s very difficult to keep secrets – whatever you think about whether they should or shouldn’t be kept. The fact is that America, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a very extensive network of specialists trying to keep secrets secret, has found that it can’t be done.”

You May Like

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

Physically and culturally close to Western Europe, Lviv feels solidarity with compatriots in country’s east but says they need to decide own future More

West African Women Disproportionately Affected by Ebola

Women's roles in families and the community put them at greater risk for contracting the disease, officials say More

Video NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Arrives at Mars

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution craft will measure rates at which gases escape Martian atmosphere into space More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid