Campaign Kicks Off Against South African FOI Proposal

31 August 2010

Opponents of proposed legislation to scale back the South African Freedom of Information law Aug. 31 issued a civil society statement titled “Let the Truth Be Told! Stop the Secrecy Bill.”

More than 180 organizations and 400 prominent individuals such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nadine Gordimer signed the statement, which says, “This Bill fundamentally undermines the struggle for whistleblower protection and access to information.”

The statement offers seven main criticisms of the bill, which is supported by the African National Congress-led government.  (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) The statement says:

The Bill will create a society of secrets

  • Any state agency, government department, even a parastatal and your local municipality, can classify public information as secret.
  • Anything and everything can potentially be classified as secret at official discretion if it is in the ‘national interest’. Even ordinary information relating to service delivery can become secret.
  • Commercial information can be made secret, making it very difficult to hold business and government to account for inefficiency and corruption.
  • Anyone involved in the ‘unauthorised’ handling and disclosure of classified information can be prosecuted; not just the state official who leaks information as is the case in other democracies.
  • The disclosure even of some information which is not formally classified can land citizens in jail. This will lead to self-censorship and have a chilling effect on free speech.
  • Whistleblowers and journalists could face more time in prison than officials who deliberately conceal public information that should be disclosed.
  • A complete veil is drawn over the workings of the intelligence services. It will prevent public scrutiny of our spies should they abuse their power or breach human rights.

The statement calls for redrafting the bill “to comply with the constitutional values of access to information and freedom of expression.”  This blog report on the press conference, includes a link to audio of it.

The battle over the Protection of Information bill is inextricably intertwined with a subsequently proposed measure to create new controls onthe media,  which also has created an outcry.

The future of the Protection of Information bill now seems unclear, according to observers in South Africa in comments to FreedomInfo.

Little has been heard from key legislators, although one, Cecil Burgess, chairman of an ad hoc parliamentary committee suggested that changes will be made, according to Reuters.  Committee deliberations on the bill, scheduled for Aug.10-12, were postponed pending a presentation by the Minister of State Security scheduled for Aug.13, but he delayed his appearance “to consider public submissions” on the bill, according to his statement.

At the moment, the opponents of the bill seem to have the floor.  Among other news stories is one in which Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi calls the bill “a mockery” and says it will not be passed as it is. “This is the first criticism of the bill by a leader of the African National Congress-led (ANC) tripartite alliance and it strengthens the media industry’s case in its attempt to oppose the bill,” according to the account.  Also, the South African Communist Party recently tempered its support for the bill, according to another news story.  

The New York Times recently published an overview on the situation.

Other resources about the bill are available on the new website of the Right to Know Campaign.

Signatories

The organizations endorsing the statement include: Afesis-Corplan, the Alternative Information Development Centre, Amnesty International, Black Sash, Ceasefire Campaign, CIVICUS, Democracy Development Programme, Diakonia Council of Churches, Earthlife Africa, Freedom of Expression Institute, Gay & Lesbian Network, Idasa, Institute for Security Studies, Open Democracy Advice Centre, M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane), National Welfare Forum, Palestine Support Committee, Professional Journalists’ Association, Section27, South African History Archives, and the South African National Editors Forum as well as various social movements including Equal Education, Social Justice Coalition, Social Movements Indaba, Treatment Action Campaign, and the Unemployed People’s Movement.

Over 400 individuals also endorsed the statement, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nadine Gordimer, Prof Kader Asmal, Zakes Mda, Dr Max Price, Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Zackie Achmat, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Mary Burton, Mazibuko K Jara, Andrew Feinstein, Richard Spoor, Andre Brink, Terry Bell, Laurie Nathan, Pierre de Vos, Max Du Preez, Paul Graham, Pippa Green, Prof Hoosen Coovadia and Breyten Breytenbach.

Other efforts to raise public concern about the proposed bill are being planned for October.

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