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Black-clad protesters took to the streets countrywide on Tuesday ahead of the National Assembly vote upon the controversial Protection of State Information Bill (POIB) in Parliament later in the day.
In Johannesburg demonstrators picketed outside Luthuli House—the ruling ANC’s headquarters, brandishing banners and posters decrying the contentious legislation.
“Jou ma se secrecy”, “Ministry of State Secrecy”, “No information means no accountability” and “We have a right to democracy” were some of the messages splashed on signs wielded by protesters.
The crowd, mostly journalists blew vuvuzelas while others chanted in unison “We want the right to know”.
“We are telling the ANC it’s not too late: You can pull this Bill, listen to people and get things right. If this Bill is passed it has the potential to stymy the flow of information to ordinary citizens - information is the lifeblood of a democracy and without information we have no power and it will threaten our democracy,” Dale McKinley, spokesperson for the Right2Know campaign, told the Mail & Guardian.
The protesters received tacit support from motorists blowing their hooters as they passed along Sauer Street and from passers-by enquiring what the protest was about.
At the same time in Pretoria protesters assembled at ANC offices in the capital, also brandishing placards and chanting slogans as activists were also gathered at Hector Petersen Museum square in in Orlando West, Soweto.
The protests around Gauteng are to be followed by parallel protests at Parliament in Cape Town from 1pm to 2pm as the vote gets underway along with one scheduled from 6-8pm in the evening outside Durban City Hall.
The media has branded Tuesday’s mass action “Black Tuesday” in reference to the Black Wednesday of October 19 1977, when the apartheid government orchestrated a crackdown on the South African media by banning the World, Sunday World and Pro Veritas newspapers.
Along with this, 20 individuals and organisations such as the Beyers Naudé‘s Christian Institute and the Union of Black Journalists were sanctioned.
The contentious legislation going before Parliament on Tuesday proposes harsh penalties for journalists and citizens found to be in possession of classified documents as well as harbouring state secrets.
Proposed consequences include prison sentences of up to 25 years, with no mechanism, such as a public interest clause, to challenge the proposed offences.
The Bill in its current form would see ordinary citizens and journalists treated as foreign spies if found to be in possession of information deemed to be a state secret.
There is no independent appeals mechanism available to citizens, who wish to access information that may have been classified as secret without justification.
Though there is a provision for a mostly independent body to review decisions, citizens do not have access directly to it.
Blown out of proportion
The ANC in Parliament have branded the Black Tuesday protests a “distortion of facts” and stated the ruling party had no intention of “banning, torturing or murdering journalists”.
“The only result this unfortunate comparison and the planned campaign, in which people are urged to dress in black, will achieve is to dilute the real history of Black Wednesday and insult the victims of apartheid’s barbaric laws,” said ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga.
But Professor Anton Harber of the University of Witwatersrand school of Journalism believes otherwise.
“Today we are suffering a huge setback in the push towards an open democracy. We have seen in the past while how critical journalism, in particular investigative journalism is in the promotion of an open society. This Bill will only make things more difficult,” said Harber.
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The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill came as no surprise, raising the threat to media freedom. View our special report.