SA Parliament passes controversial ‘Secrecy Bill’

A pastor protesting against the Information Bill outside parliament on Tuesday

By Alex Bell
22 November 2011

South Africa’s National Assembly has passed a controversial bill which critics say threatens media freedom in the country, despite mass public opposition to the proposed legislation.

The Protection of State Information Bill was approved on Tuesday after a landslide majority vote from ANC parliamentarians. The Bill has been slammed for limiting democracy and freedom of information, because it effectively paves the way for the prosecution of anyone who uncovers state ‘secrets’.

Journalists and other concerned South African citizens have for months been campaigning against the Bill, and in September the government agreed to withdraw it and to start a process of public participation to address some of the concerns. But no effort was made to start this participatory process and instead, the Bill made a sudden reappearance on the parliamentary programme.

Last week the National Press Club called for a ‘Black Tuesday’, based on 19th October 1977, the day the apartheid government banned two local publications. Journalists and members of the public on Tuesday showed their support by wearing black and also blacking out their profile pictures on social networking websites Twitter and Facebook. Protests were also held outside parliament where the Bill was discussed.

But despite this mass public display against the Bill, 229 MPs voted ‘Yes’ while 107 voted ‘No’, resulting in the Bill being passed.

Black clad media editors who attended the parliamentary session staged a walk-out after the Bill was voted in. Katy Katopodis, the news editor for the Eyewitness News group, told SW Radio Africa that it was a “sad day.”

“People have been saying today that we looked like we were attending a funeral. And honestly, today that is what it feels like,” Katopodis said.

All opposition parties lambasted the Bill while most of them, including the Democratic Alliance (DA), said they would appeal in the Constitutional Court if the bill is passed. Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu also criticised the decision on Tuesday, while the office of former President Nelson Mandela said the Bill does not meet the nation’s goals for free speech.

With a landslide majority vote from ANC parliamentarians, the Bill will be drafted into legislation and then be sent to the National Council of Provinces (NCP) for consideration. The public will then have an opportunity to review it.

The original draft Bill was first proposed in 2008 to replace an apartheid-era piece of legislation, which governed the classification of state secrets. This draft was aimed at protecting state secrets while still upholding the South African constitution, which stipulates transparent governance. That draft was never tabled in Parliament.

A new draft then appeared last year and proceeded to shock the media fraternity by appearing to be even more draconian than before. The new draft sought to create a law that would allow any organ of state, from the largest government department down to the smallest municipality, to classify any document as secret and set out harsh penalties of up to 25 years in jail for whistleblowers.

Media and civil organisations insist that the Bill should include a public interest defence, as enshrined in state secrecy legislation in Canada. Such a defence would enable journalists under threat of prison for publishing classified information, to argue in mitigation that they had done so in the public interest.

Commentators meanwhile have compared the Bill to Zimbabwe’s Public Order and Security Act (POSA) which, together with other repressive legislation, ensured that any hope of a free media would be extremely difficult. SW Radio Africa’s founder and News Editor Gerry Jackson said on Tuesday that developments in South Africa on Tuesday are “very worrying.”

Jackson said it is a worrying development for media freedom in the whole of Africa, explaining how it was hoped that South Africa would lead the way for democracy for the continent.

“It is also worrying for Zimbabwe, because South Africa is meant to be the mediator in the political crisis and yet they are behaving in the same way as ZANU PF,” Jackson said

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