Yesterday, South Africa’s National Assembly passed the “Protection of State Information” bill and it will now move on to the National Council of Provinces for their approval. This bill has garnered criticism as a threat to journalistic freedom and anti-corruption efforts. Protestors gathered for what they dubbed “Black Tuesday” in reference to the apartheid government banning several newspapers in 1977.
The new law would make obtaining, leaking, or communications classified state information a crime punishable by 25 years in jail. Also, federal and local officials would have the authority to classify any documents as secret. Protestors have been arguing that there needs to be a public interest defense clause written in to protect investigative journalists.
Keith Khoza, a spokesman for the ANC released a statement, saying, “There has been strong opposition as it does not contain a public interest clause, but if it had been included, it would nullify the whole act. If people want access to information legitimately, then they can access it through the Access of Information Act. If you can demonstrate it is in the public interest and that it will not affect the function of the state then that information can be accessed. This bill is important because it provides for the classification of confidential information. We believe that any country reserves the right to keep state information classified.”
The national Planning Minister Trevor Manuel also released a statement saying, “There isn’t a single country in the world that runs its business without secrets. I can’t understand why there is an expectation in the minds of some people in the media in South Africa to behave like silly clowns. We have the responsibility to govern this country and don’t ask us to give up that responsibility.”
However, critics of the bill have pointed out that there is a great deal of corruption in South Africa. Recently, two Ministers and the Chief of Police were fired for misappropriating millions of dollars; crimes that would have gone undiscovered if not for the media investigation and reports.
Just recently, two investigative journalists have had charges filed against them for allegedly obtaining their information illegally. They were trying to expose a presidential spokesman for illegally benefiting from an arms-procurement contract. Their story was published, but all of their incriminating evidence was blacked out and censored for publication. In light of this, Amnesty International declared that they would consider journalists and whistleblowers who are arrested under the new law as “prisoners of conscience.”
Section 32 of the South African Bill of Rights actually provides for the right to have free access to information held by the state. The only limitation on this provision is what is “proscribed by law to maintain a free and democratic society.” Do you think the bill fits this definition? Is it fair for government officials to be allowed to determine what is secret?