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Secrecy Bill could threaten the entire continent

Publish date: 12 June 2012
Issue Number: 482
Diary: Legalbrief Africa Old
Category: Africa Focus

Secrecy laws planned for SA fundamentally threaten free speech and investigative journalism, and could have a chilling effect on the rest of Africa.

That's the view of human rights lawyers, newspaper editors and Nobel prize-winning writers. Legalbrief reports that the Protection of State Information Bill - dubbed the 'Secrecy Bill' - which is being debated in the National Assembly, is causing deep divisions in all sectors of society. The Bill envisages draconian penalties of up to 25 years in prison for whistleblowers and journalists who possess, leak or publish state secrets. The Guardian reports that it has been described as the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid in 1994 to undermine SA's democracy. 'The legislation is transparently intended to make life difficult for pesky investigative journalists, and generally to save incompetent or corrupt bureaucrats from being embarrassed,' JM Coetzee, the Nobel laureate and double Booker prize winner, is quoted in the report as saying. The report notes that SA currently boasts arguably the freest press in Africa, with no shortage of revelations about shady deals or satirical cartoons lampooning politicians' foibles, the report notes. It says freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and other media, has been protected under the Constitution. But opponents of the Bill believe the gains of the past 18 years are under threat and warn that the rest of the continent is watching. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, journalists continue to be harassed and arrested, while state broadcasters remain firmly under President Robert Mugabe's control, the report states. Full report in The Guardian

An investigation of appalling prison conditions by the pioneering Drum magazine journalist Henry Nxumalo that rocked the apartheid government. Exposure of the murder in police detention of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Revelations of a corrupt multibillion-pound arms deal that marked the new democracy's fall from grace. The Guardian reports that these are among the stories that have distinguished South African journalism over more than a century. Irreverent, subversive, vibrant and open, it has taken on the powerful whatever their colour or stripe. But now, campaigners say, the country's media is facing its biggest threat since the end of white minority rule in 1994. While many accept the need to update the existing state information law - which dates back 30 years - opposition MPs, civil society groups, trade unions, academics, journalists, writers, Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and friends of Nelson Mandela have lined up to condemn the Bill. Opposition MP Lindiwe Mazibuko told Parliament: 'Today is a dark day for our young democracy. If passed, this bill will unstitch the very fabric of our constitution. It will criminalise the freedoms that so many of our people fought for. What will you, the members on that side of the house, tell your grandchildren one day?' Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter and former South African parliamentarian Ela Gandhi has also slammed the proposed Bill that would 'muzzle freedom of speech and investigative journalism'. 'I believe what you can't do in public you shouldn't do at all. That is what Gandhi always maintained and it should apply to government today,' she said in Johannesburg. The Times of India reports that the Protection of State Information Bill prescribes penalties of up to 25 years in jail for whistleblowers and journalists who possess, leak or publish state secrets. Full report in The Guardian Full Times of India report

State Security officials have presented MPs with an outdated and seemingly pointless briefing on the Bill - and were sent back to Pretoria to prepare for a re-run this week, says a Weekend Argus report. An ad hoc committee of the National Council of Provinces, which is processing the Bill, had invited officials to respond to changes proposed by MPs at a previous meeting on 10 May. But instead of commenting on these changes - some of which would significantly alter the proposed law - acting Director-General Dennis Dlomo made a presentation in which he responded only to submissions from civil society groups, dating back to April, according to the report. It says Dlomo appeared to be unaware of - or simply ignored - the fact that MPs had since taken some of these submissions on board by agreeing to several new changes to the Bill. Full Weekend Argus report (subscription needed)

Amendments tabled by ANC MPs on clause 43 of the Bill include an explicit exception for cases where disclosure of classified information reveals criminal activity, notes a Mail & Guardian report. But the department, in its presentation reported in Legalbrief Today last week, stated 'the Bill provides checks and balances to ensure there isn't an abuse of authority to classify information, and provides for lawful means to gain access to the information. It does not countenance the principle of being an adjudicator in one's own cause as implied by the public interest defence.' According to the M&G report, Alison Tilley, of the Open Democracy Advice Centre, commented: 'The Ministry has clearly not listened to the call, as there seems to be a misunderstanding on their part as to what a public interest defence means. It's not a defence for traitors but a way of protecting those who make classified information available in the public interest where needed.' Full Mail & Guardian Online report Full Sunday Times report