Delay in the fight against secrecy not a final victory
June 24 was supposed to be the final deadline for the finalisation of the Protection of Information Bill (Secrecy Bill). This was then changed to the end of August and this week postponed even further to September 23. The move is welcome but it needs to be pointed out that three months is rather short for what still needs to be done to overhaul the Bill in keeping with the openness and transparency required to maintain democracy.
Yes, this delay can be seen as a victory for all the campaigners against the Secrecy Bill—the more than 400 organisations and nearly 20 000 individuals who signed up with the Right2Know campaign, the international Avaaz petition (fast approaching 50 000 signatories), protests by prominent individuals such as Kader Asmal and Ronnie Kasrils and, of course, the ANC's alliance partner, Cosatu.
But to see this delay as a victory is also perhaps a little shortsighted.
The Bill is fundamentally flawed. If the parliamentary committee, working over months, has reached consensus on only two out of 51 clauses, does it really expect to finish its work by the end of August? By that date it is likely to be back at square one.
To save itself more embarrassment, the ANC should take the advice of civil society and head back to the public for proper consultation. This Bill, with the threat of economic sanctions (as in the withdrawal of government advertising from critical media) and the proposed media tribunal, signifies significant closures in a democracy.
The ANC's views are that the media is hysterical (about its freedoms), that it reports negatively on government and that it operates like a "cartel"— especially the print media. That's according to government communications head Jimmy Manyi, who was interviewed on radio this week.
But what has the media's response been to such attacks? Save for a reasonable number of rather detached pieces against the Secrecy Bill, the proposed media appeals tribunal and threatened economic sanctions, and, of course, the review of self-regulation, there has been no hysteria.
The South African National Editors' Forum is setting up a media freedom commission, which will in turn set up a panel of eminent persons to reform the media's self-regulation system. It has also embarked on research of international best practice as far as self-regulation is concerned.
The media is not in a complete slumber as its freedoms get whittled away. There are some strong voices: "Fight, sister, fight!" cried cartoonist Zapiro in these pages, a thought-provoking wake-up call to the media. The message was to fight for democracy rather than to roll over.
For now, the media goes about its business of meeting deadlines, sometimes unreflectively. It collects news, reports news and also does some pretty good investigation, exposing corruption, nepotism and fraud, all in the public interest. Investigative units in different newspaper groups are getting stronger by the year. At one time, the Mail & Guardian was the only newspaper with a special investigative section, but now Media24, Avusa and the Independent Group have all followed suit.
Let's imagine Manyi's fantasy. The lead on page one: "Government builds houses." On page two: "Zuma cuts ribbon as government installs electricity." Page three: "Warm reception for government as it visits the poor and promises them jobs." Pages 60 to 67 are all full of placement adverts for government jobs.
All would be well if there were no stories to be written about service-delivery protests, about unenclosed toilets, uninhabitable RDP houses or building tenders for friends who can't build houses.
On June 24, the original deadline for the finalisation of the Secrecy Bill, Right2Know was to hold a picket outside the office of Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele, his department being the driver and main champion of the Bill. The majority of civil society's demands have yet to be addressed.
The core demand is that the Secrecy Bill, in its current form, be withdrawn and redrafted from scratch, with proper and meaningful public participation. A workable Bill of the like should:
- Limit secrecy to core state bodies in the security sector, such as the police, defence and intelligence agencies;
- Limit secrecy to strictly defined national security matters and no more. Officials must give reasons for making information secret;
- Not exempt the intelligence agencies from public scrutiny;
- Not apply penalties for unauthorised disclosure to society at large, only to those responsible for keeping secrets;
- Ensure that an independent body appointed by Parliament, not the minister of state security, be the arbiter of decisions about what may be made secret; and
- Not criminalise legitimate disclosure of secrets in the public interest.
Glenda Daniels is advocacy co-ordinator at the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism and is on the Right2Know's national working group