Freedom of Press
A RIGHT UNDER THREAT IN SOUTH AFRICA?
Words :Stefan Bedard
The Protection of Information Bill is a large and ongoing debate amongst academic circles and activists within South Africa. When looking into this bill one is immediately hit with many separate perspectives, however there is one similarity amongst most of them, this bill should not be passed.
Sitting in parliament on Friday, 17 September, 2010, was a strange, strange experience. The Minister of State Security Dr S Cwele gave a speech on the pros and cons of the bill, however the arguments were fundamentally flawed through and through. There were some viable arguments raised, however they were not discussed in any seriousness – it was quite the spectacle. The best way to describe what happened at parliament that day was when a question arose afterwards from one of the ad hoc committee members about amendments which the human rights committee believed necessary to make. Cwele’s immediate response was ‘this is not a human rights issue.’ I will allow you to draw your own opinion from this.
There are many separate arguments against the bill, which do not include the issue of the freedom of the press; there are even arguments that say it won’t have any effect on the press. The regulation of press freedom, however, will affect free media in this country and mandatory minimum sentences for possession of classified information will definitely scare journalists into silence. Fear mongering should not be the goal of any democratic nation however it is happening all over the world to a certain extent. Putting limitations on freedom of the press must not be the ambition of any so-called ‘democratic’ government. The only way to have anything close to a democracy involves constantly working towards it, not slowly moving in the opposite direction. A free press is needed in any country to keep the populace informed of the motives and decisions of their government so they can vote accordingly.
The danger in this bill lies within the vague definitions of classification, public interest, and unauthorised disclosure. The whole thing has a strange air to it, allowing imprisonment for something so blurred and undefined is extremely dangerous. The opinion held by many journalists is that the ANC is trying to illegalise most forms of investigative journalism, by making the collection of information more hazardous and difficult than in the past. To a serious extent this is true and the repercussions are more far reaching than many realise, as without access to information the government will be in a position to get away with much more than they currently can. Any government should be made accountable for decisions because without accountability there is no need for thought.The real question is can the people of South Africa really trust their government with this type of power, should anyone be trusted with this type of power?
Unfortunately, this bill goes beyond just limiting journalists. The other aspect that the bill is limiting is civil rights activism. The classification of documents goes beyond the needs of national security, here any government wing will be able to classify information ‘secret’ in the discretion of ‘national interest’. This, however, goes all the way down to even something such as service delivery which could possibly become classified. They will no longer have to explain intentions they will be able to regulate any documents at their discretionwithout any concern of the public finding out. Even commercial information may become classified making it nearly impossible to expose any links of corruption between government and business. In this case, ANC funding may come from all sorts of companies in exchange for housing contracts without any one being the wiser. This will further push the issue of the predatory elite in South Africa; people who have abused their places of power to further their own wealth, mainly through commercial means.The ANC has acknowledged this problem of commercial corruption however they have done very little (if anything) to fix it. Now instead of working towards a solution for this problem it seems that they want to disguise it completely.Though there is no need to state the obvious, this clearly has a feel of an apartheid throwback no matter how many times Minister Cwele says that it is not even close. To elaborate on that, the ANC has preached change for the people, they have talked so much of freedom and constitution but this new bill is not in line with freedom or constitution.This is a whole new direction which has an odd resemblance to the previous regime. If this was nothing like the apartheid government, then surely there wouldn’t be any need for this type of extreme government regulation?
Do the people of South Africa want to keep moving in a direction of government control, when will it be time for the people? It’s time for some real freedom in this country instead of moving closer and closer to countries like Zimbabwe with draconian law, it’s time for a move in the right direction, it’s time to change our path. As Ronnie Kasrils put it (former South African Minister of Intelligence) this bill is ‘a danger and distinct threat to democracy.’
Even pushing for a bill like this tells us a lot about the current government in South Africa; why a trust worthy government would be trying to up the secrecy is extremely worrying. This doesn’t make sense, the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit, this is the reason for so much political anger and, in many cases, hatred in South Africa. The educated populace is upset and some others have no idea what is going on, the amount of ignorance will only increase if a bill like this is passed, breeding an uneducated, uninformed generation with severely limited political ambition. This is most definitely not a direction the large majority of people want to go in, this isn’t what the people want and this isn’t an example of democracy in any sense of the word. Without a vigilant media there is not a chance that the population will have an at all accurate opinion on its government, without knowledge of such an important topic the people will be easily manipulated in any direction the government sees fit.
There are several different organisations comprised of people fighting for the open share of information in South Africa. One of the larger organisations is the Right 2 Know campaign; they have been fighting the bill since the beginning and spreading awareness to people around the country. They have staged protests and have been one of the leading influences in the battle against the secrecy bill. I urge you to check out the website and sign on your name as an advocate for the open sharing of information, go to: www.right2know.org.za
EDITOR'S NOTEYoung Minds
COVER STORYEducation in South Africa
HUMAN RIGHTSFreedom of Press
GREEN ACTIONHouses of Sand
HEALTHTB: The Township Effect
NEWS ARENAUniversal Children's Day
SPOTLIGHTCare, Notice & Love
ART & CULTURETownship Talent
SPORTHockey Foundation Project
FACES & PLACESAfrica in the Snow