The decision of the ANC to avert a vote on the Information Bill in the National Assembly represents a remarkable victory.
The decision of the ANC to avert, at the 11th hour, a vote on the Protection of State Information Bill in the National Assembly represents a remarkable victory in the campaign for an open democracy. It is not a final one, however.
The decision to hold off voting was taken against the backdrop of disquiet in Cosatu, a raucous march to Parliament by the civil society coalition, Right2Know, and tens of thousands of emails from citizens mobilised by the campaign group, Avaaz, flooding the inboxes of party whips. The ANC leaders who used the opportunity of a national executive committee meeting to stall the Bill showed that they can listen and for that they deserve our praise.
Since the first version of the Bill was tabled in 2008 we have raised concerns in these pages, and in Parliament, about the absence of a public-interest defence for those who publish secrets to reveal wrongdoing, about the potential for over-reach in classification and about the undue protection from scrutiny of our powerful intelligence services. These concerns could have been addressed, as many other problems with the Bill were, before the last-minute climb-down.
There is now a fresh opportunity to fix the Bill, which could replace unconstitutional apartheid-era legislation with a truly democratic instrument, one that not only recognises the legitimate need for secrecy in narrowly defined areas of national security but also recognises the special place in our Constitution of the rights to information and free speech.
For that to happen, the minimum requirement is the insertion of language making it clear that no one who discloses secrets to reveal corruption, gross mismanagement, human rights abuses and other violations of the law can be held criminally liable for doing so.
There are several ways to achieve this, the simplest of which is to leave the responsibility for keeping secrets to the government officials whose job it is, rather than to extend it to journalists, activists and society at large.
Other changes are needed too if the Bill is not to become an excuse for default bureaucratic secrecy. So we’ll keep up the noise until the Bill is fixed but, for this week at least, the shouts may sound a lot like cheers.