The ad hoc committee on the Protection of Information Bill resumed deliberations on Monday with a noticeably different demeanour to that of previous sittings. Gone was an ANC determined to push through the bill without regard for opposition views. And gone, too, were the opposition’s seemingly wilful attempts to frustrate deliberations.
It may be too soon to call, but it looks like the ANC parliamentary caucus will keep last month’s promise to “help meet the difficult and competing demands of national security within a rights-based, constitutional democracy”.
The concessions, which the ANC has yet to put into writing, included reducing the scope of the bill, adding an independent appeal mechanism and removing the minimum prison sentences for disclosing state secrets.
Had it not been for the Right2Know campaign’s efforts to amass public pressure and interest, these concessions would have never been made. And despite this achievement, the revised wording of the post-concessions Bill will likely still contain provisions that the campaign says should warrant concern.
Freedom of expression versus access to information
From the onset, the organisations behind the Right2Know were clear: The right to freedom of expression (section 16 of the Constitution) should not be conflated with section 32, the right to access information. In a press release on the difference between the proposed Bill and the media appeals tribunal, Idasa’s Judith February wrote, “The Protection of Information Bill will, if passed in its current form, have serious consequences for all ordinary citizens, not only journalists.”
The reporting, however, has not always reflected this. And it’s easy to see why given the anti-media sentiment gripping the ANC. But this, at times, has made it seem as though the South African press has usurped an issue that also affects Jabu Umphakathi (Joe Public) and placed itself as the primary victims.
Due to the potential of jail time for possessing or publishing classified information and the lack of a clause that allows disclosure if in the public interest, the Bill has made news and opinion pages primarily as a threat to media freedom and the Constitutional right to which media freedom is inextricably linked, the freedom of expression.
Most editorials rightly pointed out that had the Bill passed in its pre-concessions form, investigative journalists would have been silenced. The Sunday Times said that the stories on Tony Yengeni, Jackie Selebi, PetroSA’s oilgate saga and other incidents of government-linked corruption would have never been published were the bill in place.
And while no organs of state appear to be involved in Julius Malema’s trust fund saga, pundits are now saying that the bill could have been used to prevent City Press from publishing the articles.
But far too little of the media’s analysis has attempted to highlight as vociferously the Bill’s threats beyond media freedom. And when this aspect was explored, it was put as a subplot. The Bill’s scope though, as the Right2Know has said, threatens ordinary citizen’s right to access government information directly.
Refocusing the debate on the threat to ordinary citizens
While it may be easy for the ANC to dismiss editorial, dismissing voters’ voices proves a much harder task. Right2Know national committee member Sithembile Mbete says that they realised early on that they can’t be just a civil society or a media movement. Ordinary people, especially the so-called poor and marginalised communities, who the ANC view as their main constituency, need to be involved.
“Access to information on government’s low-cost housing programmes remains one of the most pressing issues for many communities,” Mbete says. “Making the link of how the Bill’s far-reaching provisions could make access this information even harder was necessary to make it relevant to them.”
The campaign worked with the Newfields Village Anti-Eviction Campaign and others to serve the Cape Town Community Housing Company (CTCHC) with an application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. They demanded access to information on its low-cost housing programme.
The CTCHC did not respond to the application within the required 30 days, so on May 24, the campaign has submitted a notice of internal appeal to the national department of human settlements. Minister of Human Settlements, Tokyo Sexwale, has until August 14 to respond. The campaign says the City in the meantime continues to evict these residents.
According to a report by West Cape News, Lawyers for Human Rights said that the City’s anti-land invasion unit has been acting unlawfully by demolishing structures without a court order. This came after Tafelsig residents, frustrated by being on housing waiting lists for as long as 20 years, clashed with police and the city’s anti-land invasion unit. The report said that a lack of communication between the city and the residents was a major problem.
It is access to information issues like these that the campaign has used on to win community backing. It is these communities that would be most directly impacted by adding an ambiguous layer of secrecy to an already uncommunicative government.
The final stretch
It does seem now, with the committee’s newfound co-operative demeanour, that the September 23 deadline to finalise the Bill is real. The Right2Know campaign believes that despite the concessions and the new attitude, there is much to be done before the Bill is brought in line with the principles of democracy. The campaign will be picketing outside of Parliament throughout the week to remind the committee through its deliberation that in a democracy, people have the right to know.
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