14 April 2024 | 02:49 AM

Advocacy: Secrets Bill and govt deafness

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Key Takeaways

  • Communities need more information, not restriction. The secrecy Bill is just like apartheid in reverse. Why should government operate in secrecy? Access to information is critical to hold our government accountable and ensure transparency. — Yoliswa, Equal Education campaign
  • The Bill is taking away the rights of the public to know and hold those in power accountable. — Zikohna, Khayelitsha Site B resident
  • The secrecy Bill will rob us of our access to information, it will give government apartheid-like powers that will undermine our democracy. Government must always consult in everything they want to do. Government can’t — implement laws like in countries where leaders are ­dictators. — Clifford, Imizamo Yethu civic organisation
  • This will deprive us of our right to know and it also robs us of our rights enshrined in the Constitution. Information is power, without which communities will be powerless in confronting lack of service ­delivery. — Malik Bailley, Manenberg resident
  • This is Mugabeism, pure dictatorship. This Bill will strip South Africans of their democratically won rights of access to information. What does government have to hide? — Tinashe, Getup Standup campaign

As you read this, Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele will be making his way to Parliament to flesh out his suggested changes to the Protection of Information Bill.

At a previous appearance, Cwele claimed to have “heard” the people.

The Right2Know Campaign (R2K) urges Cwele to listen again. His proposed changes, which he sketched in broad strokes then, will go nowhere near addressing the concerns of Yoliswa, Zikohna, Clifford, Malik or Tinashe.

The Bill does not need tinkering, it needs fundamental revision if it is to comply with the constitutional demand for accountable, open and responsive government. As it is, it must be stopped.

To crank up the volume and make its approximately 350 supporting organisations and 90 00 individual signatories heard, R2K has embarked on a week of action, starting with the commemoration earlier this week of Black Wednesday, the day in 1977 when the apartheid state banned three publications and 17 organisations and arrested or restricted scores of activists.

After days of marches, pickets, cultural events, community meetings — and even “the last press conference ever” from R2K’s imaginative Durban comrades — the week of action will conclude next Wednesday, October 27, with a mass march on Parliament.

The flaws in the Bill are too many to mention here, but include examples such as the equation of secrecy with the “national interest”, the very wide discretion to classify information across all spheres of government, the classification of commercial information (which is bound to make tender corruption so much more difficult to expose) and the lack of an escape valve to permit whistle-blowing in the public interest

Will Cwele’s tinkering fix any of these? When he was in Parliament last month to give the ad hoc committee processing the Bill an initial briefing, he put his foot in it, calling secrecy “the oil that lubricates our democracy”.

And then it got worse. Cwele demonstrated that he had listened but not heard. His coup de grâce was to propose doing away with the definitions of “national interest” and “commercial information”. But it was a public relations stunt. Cwele’s proposed new definitions will still include blurry concepts such as “information-peddling”.

And it sneaks commercial information in through the back door by reversing the “mandatory refusal” definitions of the Promotion of Access to Information Act into this Bill. This means that if Cwele gets his way, third-party commercial information supplied to the state, “the disclosure of which would be likely to cause harm to the commercial or financial interests of that third party”, will be classified. Go figure — that is any tender.

Gone will be the days when, after a government official refuses you access, a whistle-blower can sneak you a copy of a document revealing evidence of tender-rigging. Under this Bill, you and the whistle-blower could be sent to jail for up to 25 years. And, as before, Cwele remained resolute that there would be no escape valve, no “public-interest defence” clause as demanded by civil society.

Cwele equally failed to address some of the worst provisions hidden in the Bill’s deeper crevices: throw-away lines that will send citizens to jail for disclosing information, even if it’s not classified, if they should have guessed that information was subject to the same mandatory refusals as above, or if the information relates to the work of spy agencies under Cwele’s control.

This Bill will turn South Africa into a society of secrets. But it is not too late. South Africans have the right to know and to be heard loudly as they reject the Bill.

Stefaans Brümmer is managing partner of amaBhungane, one of R2K’s constituent organisations. Nkwame Cedile is R2K’s Western Cape organiser.

For more information, visit www.r2k.org.za

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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