In DepthColumnsFighting the censors

Fri,24Nov2017

Posted on Wednesday, 27 June 2012 17:55

Fighting the censors

Patrick Smith

The campaign against what South Africans call the 'secrecy bill' – and what the government calls the Protection of State Information Bill – is thankfully not a lonely endeavour.


Alongside activists from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, who demolished the bill in a parliamentary debate, is former President Nelson Mandela's foundation and some of the country's Nobel Prize winners, including Desmond Tutu, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee.

Leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle – Mamphela Ramphele and the African National Congress's (ANC) Z. Pallo Jordan – have made their opposition to the secrecy bill clear before in these pages. The fight for a citizen's right to know resonates far beyond South Africa's frontiers. Those activists who did so much to back the anti-apartheid struggle saw a liberated South Africa with a free constitution as a lodestar for the continent.

The power of social media and the inter- net to transmit news and to help organise protests has rattled governments in the wake of North Africa's uprisings. That is why the governments of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have tried to close down text messaging services. That is also why Ethiopia's state-owned telecoms company is stepping up surveillance of opposition websites while it blocks the use of internet phone services. It is using the same filtering methods as China and Iran.

Although South Africa's state security minister Siyabonga Cwele says the bill does not mention the media and is not aimed at journalists, its key questions are access to information and protection of sources. The bill, with its provisions so reminiscent of the apartheid state, puts both in jeopardy. Under apartheid it was the threat of 'communist infiltrators'; today Cwele says it is the threat of 'foreign spies' that necessitates toughening the law on state information.

Should the secrecy bill become law, journalists investigating a story such as the corruption in the South African government's $10bn arms procurement deals with Britain's BAE Systems and France's Thomson-CSF could find themselves in jail along with their sources.

Should the secrecy bill become law, journalists investigating a story such as the corruption in the South African government's $10bn arms procurement deals with Britain's BAE Systems and France's Thomson-CSF could find themselves in jail along with their sources.

As campaigners argue clause by clause with the bill's promoters, among their greatest concerns is the lack of a public interest defence. That would allow journalists to argue that bringing state corruption – which the government concedes is running at some R30bn ($3.5bn) a year – to public attention trumps the government's right to restrict information.

Neither does South Africa's bill set clear limits on who has the power to restrict information, what type of information is included and who will be punished for exposing it. Proposed jail sentences range from five to 25 years. Hardest hit will be whistleblowers who believe in the public's right to know, especially when it comes to state revenue being stolen.

Governments in Kenya, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where freedom of information bills are being debated in parliament, will watch the progress of South Africa's secrecy bill with rapt interest. The majority leader in Ghana's parliament, Cletus Avoka, sparked outrage from legislators on both sides of the house in May when he said freedom of information was not a priority for parliament.

A year ago, Nigeria passed its own freedom of information bill, which sceptics say has done little to staunch corruption. That may be true, but in the wake of January's protest over fuel subsidies, anti-corruption activists have won several key battles about access to information on state revenue and previously clandestine contracts. Now it is up to opposition politicians and voters to pressure the government.

The report released by Nigeria's National Assembly in April about the beneficiaries of fuel subsidy scams has helped tilt the balance towards the public's right to know, as has the forced release of several audits of the state petroleum company. Veterans of the battles against censorship and corruption in Nigeria could offer some lessons to campaigners in South Africa. Despite the best efforts of security officials in Tshwane, the tide against censorship is turning in Africa and beyond. ●



Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.

 

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