What you should know about ‘Right to Know’

26 October 2010, 1200 EDT

While WikiLinks is dumping information from the US military all over the internets, the South African government is taking some rather disturbing steps to ensure that citizens, citizens and pretty much everyone in between will not have the right to access any information deemed a threat to “national security”.  What kind of information threatens national security? Well, according to the “Protection of Information Bill”, pretty much whatever government (local, regional, national) decides. It’s a dangerously vague bill that could possibly do great harm to South Africa. I don’t think I need to go into great detail why so much government control over information is a bad thing. I’m not an African politics specialist, but I’ve been chatting about it with my very cool historian friend Sarah Duff, who gave me the following run-down of the main issues below that I thought I would share with Duck readers as this story, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention outside of South Africa. If nothing else, how could you possibly resist a movement with a logo of a crumpled vuvuzela?

Last month the Minister for State Security, Bheki Cwele, announced to the Ad Hoc Committee currently steering the controversial Protection of Information Bill through the South African Parliament that ‘secrecy is the oil which lubricates our democracy.’ While not only an icky choice of metaphor, Cwele’s positioning of secrecy at the heart of South African democracy runs counter to the ideals embodied by our Constitution, and is also ‘against the spirit of 1994’, as struggle veteran and former cabinet minister Kader Asmal remarked last week. If it is passed in its current form, the Protection of Information Bill will empower state employees – in government departments, parastatals, local government councils, and state agencies – to classify all and any information as secret without having to provide reasons for doing so.

This Bill has been introduced on the grounds that South Africa’s ‘national interest’ needs to be better protected by allowing the state to make ‘sensitive’ information secret. But partly because of the Bill’s very vague definition of ‘national interest’, it is clear that its reach is far wider than ensuring South Africa’s security. (It is also debatable whether South Africa needs this legislation when other laws, such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act, make allowance for the classification of sensitive information.) By allowing government officials to classify all state-held information, by increasing the penalty for being in possession of classified information to imprisonment to up to 25 years, and by refusing to include a ‘public interest’ clause, the Bill will have profound implications for the work done by journalists and whistleblowers. In fact, the Bill is unconstitutional, as it contradicts Section 32 of the Constitution which enshrines the right to access information.

Although the media has drawn attention to the Bill’s potential to stifle freedom of speech and expression, the Bill’s impact will be felt by all South Africans, and will have a disproportionate effect on those people who rely heaviest on the state for support. It was for this reason that the Right2Know Campaign was launched at the end of August. Representing more than 400 civil society organisations and 10,000 individuals who have signed the Campaign’s petition, Right2Know campaigns against the introduction of what we call the Secrecy Bill: a piece of legislation which will transform South Africa into a secretive and paranoid society. Our week of action against the Bill was launched with a silent march to Constitution Hill on 19 October – to coincide with commemorations of ‘Black Wednesday’ when, in 1977, the apartheid government banned three newspapers on the grounds of the protection of the national interest – and will culminate with marches to Parliament in Cape Town and the Durban City Hall on 27 October. Our branches in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban have put on a range of seminars, workshops, cultural evenings, and even a symbolic funeral for free speech.

Political commentator Richard Calland has described Right2Know as ‘very remarkable, and very significant’, and the Campaign has made political waves. During his second presentation to Parliament on Friday, Cwele condemned the campaign’s actions and giggled nervously as Right2Know campaigners lined the walls of the meeting room. But he turned a deaf ear to the Campaign’s concerns. We only have one chance to stop this Bill, and from preventing South Africa from becoming a society of secrets. We will make ourselves heard loudly – so that not even the deafest government can ignore us.

For more on Right2Know, see www.right2know.org.za and check out their twitter here