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South Africans Organizing Against Government Secrecy Bill

One of the participants in a march to Parliament in Cape Town to highlight concerns over the possible introduction of the Protection of Information Bill, 27 Oct 2010

More than 400 organizations and 10,000 individuals in South Africa have banded together in a campaign against a proposed law that would severely curtail the media freedoms guaranteed in the country's constitution.

The Right2Know campaign was established a month ago to oppose the so-called Protection of Information Bill that is being considered by parliament in Cape Town. National Coordinator Mark Weinberg says that for the past week the organization has been engaged in a series of activities to highlight their cause.

"And in the week of action we have done things from community meetings across the country, a march up in Johannesburg, film screenings. In Durban yesterday, there was a cavalcade of hearses and coffins symbolizing the death of democracy," he said.

The proposed law seeks to control information that is considered to be in the national interest without defining what that is. Authority to classify information will also be delegated to very low ranking government officials.

Right2Know's Weinberg says the provisions are far too sweeping.

"I think there is a very narrow set of information that can legitimately be made secret, information that might military implications, or might, or in the hands of the secrecy ministries. This bill covers all organs of civil society, from local municipalities right across to parastatals [state-owned enterprises] like our public broadcaster," he said.

The government argues the proposed legislation will not violate media freedoms, and along with the ruling African National Congress also often charge that the media is sloppy and often gets facts wrong, and that the subjects of those reports are unfairly slandered.

Right2Know's week of action culminated with a march to parliament. Weinberg says the goal is to send a message to legislators not to pass the bill and make it law. But he says, there is also a wider goal.

"I think that is the primary message, the secondary message of our week action, is to raise awareness among South Africans, of how important transparency and accountability is and how easily it can be eroded if we are not on guard," he added.

Like other observers, Weinberg says the government's rush to introduce the Protection of Information Bill appears to have its roots in negative publicity around President Jacob Zuma and some senior ministers. Among those most vocal in its support are Mr. Zuma and ministers who have been the subject of reports of extravagant expenditure.