‘The right to know is a fundamental right’

Hundreds of people participated in a march through the Johannesburg city centre on Tuesday to commemorate Media Freedom Day and to protest against the Protection of Information Bill.

Media Freedom Day marks the day in 1977 when the apartheid government shut down the World and the Sunday World newspapers, banned 17 civil organisations and arrested a host of journalists and activists.

Tuesday’s march is just one in a series of events organised to mark the Right2Know campaign’s week of action. The organisation, which has gained the backing of more than 370 civil society organisations and 10 000 citizens since it launched a month ago, says the Protection of Information Bill — which it calls the “Secrecy Bill” — poses a threat to democracy.

If the Bill is passed in its current form, it will allow a broad range of government officials to classify information deemed to be in the national interest without having to justify why that information has been classified. The term national interest has not been narrowly defined, so even information that is not a threat to security can be classified, and that information can be classified indefinitely. Whistleblowers who make classified information public will be at risk of imprisonment or fine.

The Right2Know campaign aims to mobilise South Africans to demand that the Bill be scrapped in its current form.

‘It’s not just a piece of legislation that affects the media’
Ahead of the event, Ayesha Kajee, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute and Gauteng organiser of the Right2Know campaign, said organisers were expecting people from all walks of life to join the march.

“We really think this is an event that needs to be supported by ordinary South Africans, because the right to know is a fundamental right, without which you cannot access your other rights,” she said.

Kajee said that the speed with which the movement had gained support from such diverse quarters as religious groups, community groups and libraries, showed the degree of public awareness about the need to protect access to information.

“People are starting to realise that it’s not just a piece of legislation that affects the media, but it’s legislation that will cast a veil of secrecy over the workings of government,” she said.

William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, which also supports the Right2Know campaign, said building mass support for the campaign would not be a one-day affair, and it would take a concerted effort on the part of the media to help explain why defending access to information is critical to ordinary South Africans.

“We assume too high a level of knowledge of our audience, that they know what the importance of the event is. But I don’t think we do a good enough job of linking things like the Protection of Information Bill to people’s everyday lives and to broader events,” he said

“We need to educate people about the basics of our democracy, we need to explain how the media works and how the [reporting] process works,” he said.

Broader implications for society
Alison Tilley, executive director of the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) and also a member of the Right2Know campaign, agreed with Bird, saying that although there has been a lot of emphasis on the media impact of the Protection of Information Bill, the broader implications for society have not been dealt with sufficiently.

According to Tilley, in a recent survey carried out by ODAC and the Human Rights Commission, it was found that 67% of requests for information made to the government went unanswered.

“You as a community will request information and you’ll just be ignored. There are an enormous number of institutions that are just not responsive,” she said, adding that this is one of the factors that have led to the recent rise in service-delivery protests.

She said that in many areas where there had been service-delivery protests, the community had not been given information about what was being done to address its concerns; people are not happy with the level of communication they get from elected officials.

If the Protection of Information Bill is passed in its current form, communities would have even less access to information.

Another concern for Tilley is that people often speak of the Bill and the media appeals tribunal, an oversight body which the ANC believes should be formed to govern the media, in the same breath.

“But the media appeals tribunal is not a Bill. It’s under discussion, whereas Protection of Information is a Bill. It is a lot more urgent … It just needs the committee to approve it and for Parliament to pass it and it will become a law,” she said. Because of this, there should be a greater sense of urgency in opposing the Protection of Information Bill.

More information on the Right2Know campaign can be found on the organisation’s website.

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