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South Africa, the ‘Secrecy Bill’ and relations between media and officials

By Debbie Ransome

South African MPs have approved the much-criticised Protection of State Information Bill which proposes sentences of up to 25 years for anyone found in possession of classified government documents.

Dubbed the “secrecy bill” by its critics, the legislation was passed in the South African parliament by 229 votes to 107 on November 22.  Two MPs chose not to vote.

To protest, South African journalists wore black outside the headquarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Human rights campaigners and journalists dubbed the day “Black Tuesday.”

The legislation bans publication of any document, even if in the public interest, which government declares to be classified.

Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer told Britain’s Observer newspaper that freedom of expression had been “struck out as a danger to the state.”

Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu had called the legislation “insulting”.

He said that the law could be used to outlaw “whistle-blowing and investigative journalism”.

The civil society Right2Know campaign group has been advocating against the Protection of Information Bill since its introduction in 2010.

Its activities had forced a rewriting of some of the clauses in the bill but the group had said earlier in 2011 that the bill threatens hard-won constitutional rights such as freedom of expression and access to information.

African film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo wrote on September 20 on the BBC Africa Viewpoint website: “Citizens of the rainbow republic are uncertain about the wisdom of this law. They are concerned that there is no protection for whistleblowers and no public interest defence for the media.”

“Stories about systemic corruption – for instance, in the multi-billion dollar arms deal that has implicated top government officials, including Mr Zumawoud become impossible to cover and those that seek to shine a light into the dark nooks of power would be criminalised.”

Amnesty International said that, under the bill, journalists will no longer be able to argue that they are acting in the public interest by publishing sensitive information about the government. They could face up to 25 years in prison for publishing information which state officials want to keep secret.

The ANC has argued that the legislation will safeguard national security.

The legislation is now set to be placed before South Africa’s upper House and then signed into law by the president in 2012.

In the build-up to leadership elections in 2012 in South Africa, journalists continue to be drawn into the tensions created by splits in the ruling African National Congress and the ANC youth leader Julius Malema.

In August, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it had been “alarmed” at the anti-press violence by Malema supporters as their leader faced an ANC disciplinary meeting. At least nine journalists were injured.

Malema later told his supporters they cannot throw stones are journalists who are “just messengers”. The CPJ welcomed his restraint but called on him to publicly condemn the violence.

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