In the historic setting of Cape Town's St Georges Cathedral, over 300 South African and international civil society organisations launched the Right2Know Campaign early last week. This broad based Campaign, which seeks to defend and advance Constitutional Rights to access information and freedom of speech, has the support of inter-faith groups, advocacy organisations and think tanks alike. They have been galvanised by a belief that the proposed Protection of Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill) including the proposed measures to curtail media freedom will take us back towards a past that many ordinary South Africans sacrificed much to overcome. It is also borne out of frustration that detailed submissions to Parliament by civil society groups on the proposed Secrecy Bill have been largely ignored to date. Instead the cogent arguments calling for the Bill to be significantly overhauled have been treated with contempt by our elected lawmakers and their independent advisors who brand such concerns as ‘hysteria'. We view these glib responses in serious light.
While the public are told that the proposed law is in the ‘national interest', the proponents of this odious legislation seem to have forgotten that democracy, freedom and the right to know are inseparable. Block the free flow of access to information and democracy suffocates. More accurately it will be suffocated by power given to the security establishment which will suddenly have its tentacles in almost every aspect of public life. The possession of information could be criminalised while journalists and researchers who contributed to the publication face imprisonment of between five and twenty five years. This naturally breeds withdrawal, fear and perpetuates social exclusion.
The concern of the Right2Know coalition is that ordinary citizens will soon be dominated by powerful predatory elites. The Right2Know is not a fight only for access to information by a diverse, independent and responsible media. It goes to the heart of the struggles which ordinary man and woman have on a daily basis in communities across South Africa. The Secrecy Bill seeks to disempower civic groups working in such communities while it further empowers officialdom to make secret that which should be public. It also assumes that officials are by default benevolent people and always have best interest of citizens.
Imagine burying family members who die of HIV/Aids only to be told by a government official that records of the scale of the pandemic are confidential. Sitting in darkness while Eskom officials announce that they cannot confirm or deny power-cuts. The impact is not only farcical but extends to dangerous if municipalities suppress information of poor quality water before election campaigns. Consider the way in which this will widen the gap between elected officials and the electorate, nullifying the notion of participatory governance which President Jacob Zuma has called on civil society to embark on together with his government. The Bill undermines the basic principle of a social contract, so desperately needed, between the state and citizens.
Greater secrecy translates into greater power for a smaller number of people. When even mundane information is classified it will also contribute to what Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka refers to as a ‘Climate of Fear'. When this happens, he argues, "Caution and calculation replace a norm of spontaneity or routine. Often normal speech is reduced to a whisper, even within the intimacy of the home". The Secrecy Bill and related laws seek not only to silence, but create a culture of silence. This climate of fear Soyinka argues is the converse of ‘human dignity'. It is programmed to centralise resources and power and stifle creativity and diversity, which is central to our post 1994 liberation.
While there is a need to replace apartheid era secrecy laws, the question seldom asked is in whose direct interest is the Secrecy Bill and proposed Media Appeals Tribunal? There are three identifiable groups who will benefit from these measures: a group of securocrats and spies who have a natural tendency to want to suppress access to information; the Venal Politicians who are shameful of the trinkets that have been bought through the public pursue such as cars, houses and evenings in five star hotels and; the Predatory power elite who are involved in large scale corruption and move with seeming ease between networks they have established in politics, business and state owned enterprises. The interests of these three groups conflate and overlap at times. They represent the shady end of public life. The shadow state.
If these are the primary beneficiaries of the Bill, then the victim becomes the ‘national interest'. It is apparent that our leaders are walking down a path that could entangle them in the narrow interests of these three groups. This is not, as a column in the Sunday Independent naively suggests a case of the ‘ANC versus society'. Rather it is these three interest groups who seek to undermine the legacy of freedom which the ANC and UDF fought for. The time for ANC MP's and leaders who register disquiet with the law in private to speak out is now for them not to become accomplice to efforts capture and criminalise the state. They should do so in the same way that prominent individuals such as clerics (Archbishop Tutu), writers (Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda and Andre Brink) political activists (Kader Asmal and Mazibuko Jara) and academics (Jonathan Jansen and Max Price) have done. However, their responsibility is not to sign statements and march to parliament during the week of action which the Right2Know Campaign has scheduled for 19 October. Rather their Constitutional obligation is to use the power which we have given them within Parliament to ensure that the Secrecy Bill and all other efforts to muzzle freedom of speech are blocked. Freedom is a common currency to all our people and should not be traded and subjected to speculative market practice as it is priceless. A climate of fear will affect all who live in South Africa equally. Our leaders must speak truth to power or expect to be muzzled by machinations, which will be of their own making.
Written by: Hennie van Vuuren, Director ISS Cape Town and Phelisa Nkomo, Black Sash National Programme Advocacy Manager.
*This article first appeared in the Mail&Guardian on Friday 3 September