Secrecy bill ushers us into a darker age

27 November 2011 - 03:56 By Sunday Times Editorial

Sunday Times Editorial: A SHADOW passed over South Africa this week. On Monday we were a free people living in a free country. Then, on a day that will forever bear the title Black Tuesday, we stepped through the looking glass into a new country, one where the shadows are deeper, where a chill wind promises a coming storm.

People protest against the secrecy bill outside Parliament in this file photo.
People protest against the secrecy bill outside Parliament in this file photo.
Image: Anna Majavu

On Tuesday, the parliamentary chamber where Nelson Mandela presided over the dismantling of apartheid and the passing of the constitution was transformed.

For the first time, legislation that would substantially curb freedom was on the agenda.

The Protection of State Information Bill ostensibly seeks to prevent "foreign" agencies from undermining the security of the republic.

But it goes a lot further, making it possible for a wide range of government officials to classify information as "confidential", "secret" or "top secret" should the publication of such information harm "national security".

Siyabonga Cwele, the Minister of State Security who drove this bill, claims that there is no intention to limit reporting in the legislation.

"This bill is not about regulating the media. There is no single mention of the media in this bill," he said. And, he added: "Neither is this bill about covering up corruption."

He purports to believe that the law offers sufficient protection of whistle-blowers and reporters.

He is wrong.

The fact remains that it is an offence punishable by up to 25 years in jail to possess or disseminate classified information, even if such information is demonstrably in the public interest.

A substantial - and costly - bureaucratic process, which is likely to be the subject of judicial review and then judicial appeal, is legislated to change the classification status of information.

But the simple mechanism of a public interest defence, which would ensure that reporting would be protected, is strangely absent.

In fact, Cwele has made it plain that he and the ANC are fiercely opposed to such provisions.

On Tuesday, the ANC ignored demands for a public interest defence from editors, academics, authors, non-governmental organisations, business and labour.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this belligerent attitude is that the curtailment of the freedom of the media is an intentional side-effect of this legislation.

Two tests of the government's intentions await: will the documents surrounding bidding and acquisition in the next arms deal be declared secret in the interests of national security?

A trillion rand may be spent on six new nuclear reactors. Will this dangerously tempting tender process be a secret?

The lights are about to be turned off.