Journalists, civil society, activists and unions are girding their loins for what looks to be a long battle against the ANC and its government, as civil society rejects with contempt the Protection of State Information Bill and organisations, including trade unions, vow to fight all the way to the Constitutional Court South Africans’ right to know.
In a letter to Members of Parliament, the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) today asked MPs to “advance our democracy, rather than injuring it” by rejecting the Protection of State Information Bill being put to the vote in the National Assembly today.
The National Press Club urged all South Africans to wear black, or a black armband, today to protest against the silencing of civil society’s voice by elected leaders. President of the NPC, Yusuf Abramjee, told protestors outside Luthuli House this morning that it had “received thousands of messages of support from across SA and it’s time that we get a loud and clear message to government that we will not sit back and watch our Constitutional rights being infringed”.
Today has been called Black Tuesday in honour of Black Wednesday, the day in 1977 when journalists and editors – Aggrey Klaaste and Percy Qoboza – for opposing apartheid and supporting the black consciousness movement, were banned. So, too, were the newspapers The World, the Sunday World and a Christian publication called Pro Veritas.
Sanef, in it’s letters to MPs, said that while the ad hoc committee on the bill had done “important work over the past 18 months” and that some of the legislation was improved, “Unfortunately,however, while the changesare necessary and valuable, they are not sufficient to render the Bill safe for democracy”.
Sanef said the bill, in its current form, “represents an attack on principles of open democracy that are deeply embedded in our Constitution”. The editors believe the bill will “limit the work of government departments, Chapter Nine institutions, Parliament, trade unions, the media and civil society by choking off the flow of vital information and restricting crucial accountability mechanisms”.
“There are several serious remaining flaws in the bill. Chief among these is the absence of a public interest defence, which is crucial to ensuing that the bill does not become an instrument to suppress information that may reveal serious wrong doing. Also of serious concern is the blanket secrecy afforded our powerful and important intelligence structures, secrecy that shields excessively from from scrutiny, and leaves little recourse when they abuse their considerable authority,” Sanef said in the letter.
The ANC and government’s absolute refusal to do the right thing and LISTEN to voice of civil society has aroused the anger of voters. Social media has taken on the cause as part of mass protests taking place around the country today, similar to how the United Democratic Front used to rally civil society against the apartheid government.
The bill has become international news too, something that worries business people who are already dealing with investor jitters and the recent downgrade by Moodys of South Africa’s status.
In the meantime, civil society coalitions have organised pickets and protests around South Africa. The Right2Know Campaign (R2K) will picket at six separate venues today in what it calls a “show of outrage at the ANC’s move to ram through the Bill without the promised process of proper and meaningful public consultation”.
R2K says the Secrecy Bill which has now been returned to Parliament by the ANC “abjectly fails to meet many of the most basic demands of the R2K Campaign as contained in the 7 Point Freedom Test:
- Harsh prison sentences of up to 25 years, with no protection for whistleblowers except for the most minor offences. Even those who harbour whistleblowers may face prison sentences.
- Anyone who comes into possession of a state secret faces up to five years in prison if they do not hand the information to police or security services.
- Last-minute drafting by the Parliamentary ad hoc committee ensured that the Secrecy Bill would trump the Promotion of Access to Information Act which promotes citizens’ right to know.
- The Bill shuts off the state security agencies from any kind of scrutiny or accountability to the public.
- There is no independent appeals mechanism available to citizens who wish to access information that may have been classified as secret without justification.
The ANC, in the meantime, is rallying its MPS – often NOT in parliament – and has ordered all 264 of them to be present in the National Assembly today. Beeld newspaper reports that MPs will have no choice but to vote for the bill and that votes would be “checked” afterwards to ensure compliance.
Cartoonist Zapiro’s illustration of Black Tuesday shows President Jacob Zuma, showerhead attached, blacking out the word DEMOCRACY (http://twitter.com/?photo_id=1#!/Capetown_Bru/status/138876072304455680/photo/1).
In his explanation of the cartoon, Zapiro referred to The Times’ editorial today: Mark this day. Depending on the actions of the 400 MPs in the National Assembly at 2pm, it will end as a day of triumph or of shame for our adolescent democracy.
Every MP who presses the green button to vote “yes” for the Protection of State Information Bill will at that moment take personal responsibility for the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid that dismantles an aspect of our democracy – a betrayal that will haunt them forever.