/ 20 September 2011

Secrecy Bill ‘stinks of the past’

Despite the postponement of Parliament's vote on the Protection of Information Bill, it did not mean the fight to stop the legislation had been won.

Despite the ANC’s last-minute postponement of Parliament’s vote on the Protection of Information Bill, it did not mean the fight to stop the legislation had been won, a civil society group said on Monday evening.

The Right2Know campaign marched with hundreds of supporters to Parliament to protest against the implementation of the controversial ‘secrecy’ Bill, ahead of a planned debate this week. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has subsequently signaled it may be shelved.

Earlier on Monday, ruling party chief whip Mathole Motshekga said the decision to postpone the vote had been taken because interest groups — which he declined to name — had asked for another chance to make input on the state secrets legislation.

“If we have sections of society saying they still need to be heard … we have to listen to them.

“Even over this weekend, people were marching. Our view is that the door of this Parliament, of the ANC, is open. We are ready to listen to the people at all times,” he told reporters after an ANC caucus meeting, referring to a protest march in Cape Town against the Bill on Saturday.

The Bill proposed prison sentences of five years for whistleblowers who leaked state secrets and did not include a public-interest defence, which would have protected journalists and whistleblowers who leaked information that was in the public interest, such as misuse of taxpayers money or human rights abuses.

Non-governmental and community-based organisations and individuals launched the Right2Know (R2K) campaign in August last year to fight the Bill.

About 150 people gathered outside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on Monday evening for a vigil in protest at the Bill. Vigils also took place in Cape Town and Durban.

“If today we do not stand, tomorrow we will be silenced” said R2K spokesperson Dale McKinley.

In Johannesburg, the crowd lit candles, toyi-toyied and sang struggle songs.

McKinley said disagreement within the ANC about the Bill did not mean it would be laid to rest. “There may be dissension in the ANC itself. People could be uncomfortable with parts of the Bill but the party has categorically said [previously] they will not amend or get rid of the Bill.”

“The message we give to government is scrap this Bill altogether. Make a new Bill that is constitutional to deal only with the information that must be kept secret for state security,” he said.

Low turnout
Jayshree Pather, a member of R2K’s national working group, said she would have liked to see more people at the event.

“This Bill affects every citizen. We hope people will become more active.”

“Where are the people? It is an absolute disgrace” said Johannesburg resident Jolyon Ollerhead. “Let’s do something!” he urged the crowd. “Let’s show this government!”

As night fell, protesters spoke to the crowd about their dissatisfaction with the proposed legislation.

“Until we die, we are going to fight,” said Soweto resident Eunice Zungu.

Earthlife Africa activist Tristan Taylor told the crowd he could be jailed if the Bill was passed. He said under the current legislation “it was incredibly difficult to get the truth about environmental problems”, especially when the group approached private companies. But if the Bill was passed, “we will never get to the truth about issues”.

“The energy sector will spend R11,3-trillion in the next 20 years and we won’t be able to play a watchdog function without going to jail” he added.

Apartheid or democracy?
Many in the crowd outside the court on Constitutional Hill said the proposed law was similar to apartheid legislation.

Protester Mzonke Madlala said he was very disappointed with the government. “I was involved in the [apartheid] struggle and this secrecy Bill is the direct opposite of what we fought for.”

“It stinks of the past in way that is very, very frightening to me,” said protester Jennifer Steyn. “There will be mothers’ daughters and mothers’ sons who will disappear and be imprisoned. It will be like the old days.”

“Are they creating a police state? They were against it in the previous regime?” asked Thomas Khumalo, who said he joined the trade union movement in 1968 and stood against apartheid as a member of the National Union of Metalworkers’.

Former ANC national executive committee member Lyndall Shope-Mafole said, “In every country with repression they have laws like this one.”

The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill came as no surprise, raising the threat to media freedom. View our special report.