From the news desk

The Chilling Shadow

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THE Protection of Information Bill or “Secrecy Bill” – its surreal passage through parliament now extended for a further two months – is an Orwellian creation befitting Animal Farm and 1984 as well as being a chilling shadow of the Apartheid era.

As an attempt to re-write the clumsy Access to Information Bill of 1982, the Secrecy Bill comes across as an exercise in political paranoia.

It’s a crude cut-and-paste overkill on the issue of government information, or as Public Service Minister Richard Baloyi would have us believe, “open content”.

Sifting through its legalistic gobbledegook, and its sinister clauses that promise to silence public review of government forever, a simple question is at its core: how should the state classify and de-classify information?

Of course, the question is relevant, but the answer – in the form of the current Secrecy Bill – is a draconian ass. In its present sweeping form the Secrecy Bill empowers public officers (from Director Generals to the President) to “classify” information.

The problem is that the Bill’s application is so broad: anything such as Home Affairs corruption or unauthorised Ministerial hotel bills, police crime stats, dirty arms deals – and even Schabir Shaik’s golf handicap – could be classified as secret, and buried away from public sight for 20 years.

Not only that, a whistleblower, an investigative journalist, a trade union official or any concerned South African citizen releasing “classified” information in the public interest can be jailed up to 25 years, with no option of a fine.

Even those privy to the information without acting on it, and who don’t report it to the police, will be liable for prosecution. This would lead to some interesting scenarios should a whistleblower post “classified” information on Facebook or Twitter, or should someone read the story in a newspaper.

On the other hand, a public official who abuses the Secrecy Bill to camouflage corruption, mismanagement or incompetency will only be liable to pay a fine, or at worst, face three years behind bars.

The carte-blanche powers that would be vested in the Ministry of State Security, which would have oversight in terms of the Secrecy Bill, are frightening. Like Big Brother, it would have to be in over 1,000 government departments at the same time.

Understandably condemned by a raft of NGO’s and public bodies, the Secrecy Bill’s most recent critic has been COSATU, which appears to have only realised the import of the Bill at the eleventh hour.

The voice of concern of ANC stalwarts such as Ronnie Kasrils needs to be noted too. For they would be able to tell ANC hacks, so forgetful of their Freedom Charter heritage, that the anti-apartheid movement spent decades fighting the kind of totalitarianism the party now wants to impose.

Opposition to the Secrecy Bill from ANC ranks may well reflect tensions from within; but it does begin to point towards the Secrecy Bill’s architects, who given the arms scandal and other issues, appear to be – like the President himself – extremely sensitive to public scrutiny.

But what has been so shocking about the Secrecy Bill has been its authors’ nagging inability to understand the basic principles of freedom of speech. Its fancy preambles about democracy are betrayed by the contradictory clauses that follow.

The Ad Hoc Committee in parliament may have changed “national interest” (a term that can mean absolutely anything) to a slightly more specific, but still hugely vague, “national security”. However, it doesn’t answer why “national interest” was considered as a viable legal term in the first place.

Other terms in the Secrecy Bill, such as “hostile activity”, beggar the imagination as to what exactly they could be.

The total absence of a public interest defence clause, the very bedrock of whistle-blowing, is a baffling oversight. Its omission sends an arrogant and ominous message to all South Africans, the employers of the politicians, who have a right to see competent legislation passed by those whom they voted for.

But as one observes the Ad-Hoc Committee in action, ruling party members as coherent about the Secrecy Bill as the Mad Hatter, it becomes obvious that as the one hole is sealed in the Bill, it begins to ship water through another.

This is exactly what happened to Apartheid lawmakers in 1950 when they passed the Suppression of Communism Act, a piece of legislation so wide that even the judges of the time had difficulty in applying it.

This was followed by the Terrorism Act of 1966 and the Internal Security Act of 1974. By 1990, those dealing with state information, or matters of public interest and protest, were governed by over 100 laws.

If the Secrecy Bill is passed, there is no guarantee that as it falls over its own feet the ANC government will not just ram through more and more legislation – exactly as the National Party did for 46 years – to cover the loopholes.

The sheer folly of the flight-path of the Secrecy Bill is seen in the words of an ANC MP, Vytjie Mentor. When discussing international examples of information classification, she argued that Zimbabwe was a good example.

This is a country where freedom of expression and the press are restricted by law to the point of absolute strangulation, in spite of the country’s Constitution promising otherwise. Mentor should not only be red-carpeted and disciplined by the Party Whip for foolishness, but also told to write out our Constitution 1,000 times.

For many, the Secrecy Bill has been portrayed as an issue between the government and the media. The truth is that the Secrecy Bill is not just about the media, but the right of all South Africans to know what those in power do in their name.

It’s an issue that cuts right across socio-economic and political lines. Every South African stands to be affected by it. And if the Secrecy Bill is passed in the form that some of our leaders insist, every one of us should have reason to fear for the future.

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