/ 21 November 2011

Media to march against secrecy Bill vote

The South African media are set for mass protest on Tuesday as the controversial Protection of Information Bill (POIB) is put to a vote in Parliament’s National Assembly in Cape Town.

A series of demonstrations will take place across the country with journalists and members of the public set to don black to mourn the crackdown on press freedom. The day has been labelled “Black Tuesday”– a stark reference to Black Wednesday in 1977.

In Gauteng, four protests are planned throughout the day with demonstrators set to gather at the ANC headquarters, Luthuli House, in Johannesburg as well as at the ANC constituency office in central Pretoria from 8am to 9am.

Demonstrators will gather at Hector Petersen Museum square in Soweto from 9-10am, while others will assemble at the ANC constituency in Vereeniging from 10-11am.

Parallel protests are planned outside Parliament in Cape Town from 1pm to 2pm as well as at Durban City Hall from 6-8pm in the evening.

The contentious legislation 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 will 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.

Sensationalist reports
The State Security Agency (SSA) has labelled reports the POIB will lead to censorship and a crackdown on the free-flow of information as sensationalist.

“It is not correct that there will be mass classification of information as the application of the Bill is narrowed drastically to national security departments,” SSA spokesperson Brian Dube said.

“To argue that life under the Protection of State Information Bill will be characterised by censorship and information blackouts is sensationalising of the highest order,” he added.

But protest organisers, the Right2Know campaign, said the fears reported in the media are warranted.

“It’s crucial we recognise this Bill not only as an attack on the media but everyone in South Africa. It will prevent us from holding our government accountable at all levels and severely threaten the free flow of information,” Murray Hunter, national coordinator of the Right2Know campaign told the Mail & Guardian.

Hunter’s comments were echoed by Professor Anton Harber of the University of Witwatersrand’s school of journalism.

“If the Bill passes, it will be a setback in making this an open society — something that affects each and every one of us. Tomorrow’s [Tuesday] demonstrations are a step in the long battle to make Parliament and all other spheres of government open and accountable,” Harber said.

The ANC in Parliament have branded the 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.

A sign of things to come
The vote in Parliament comes hot on the heels of presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj prevented the publishing of a story on Friday, by threatening legal action against the paper and two of its senior journalists, Stefaans Brümmer and Sam Sole.

The gagged report alleged that Maharaj lied to the Scorpions during a section 28 inquiry into his involvement in the arms deal.

The story was published with large black print covering sections of the article that were deemed by Maharaj’s attorneys as contravening the National Prosecuting Authority Act, which makes it an offence to disclose evidence gathered in camera by a section 28 inquiry.

On Saturday, Maharaj formally laid a charge against the M&G along with Brümmer and Sole.

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos said the NPA Act, which Maharaj used to muzzle the M&G report, is tame in comparison to the POIB.

“Mr Maharaj prevented that story based on modes of distribution — the secrecy Bill is so draconian that it stipulates that even if you hold a secret document on your person or on your premises, you are committing a criminal offence that could see you in jail for up to 25 years,” de Vos told the M&G.

But Dube says otherwise.

“The truth of the matter is that the Bill provides numerous avenues for access to information, including classified information. In some respects, the process to access information has been made even faster than is the current process found in the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA),” said Dube.

The ANC’s majority in Parliament is expected to easily rubber-stamp the Bill in the vote on Tuesday, with opposition parties set to oppose the move to vote against it.

Before it is enacted into law, the POIB must pass through the National Council of Provinces and, if successful, is set to be challenged in the Constitutional Court by the media and civil society organisations.

Black Wednesday refers to October 19 1977, when the apartheid government orchestrated a crackdown on the South African media, banning the World, Sunday World and Pro Veritas newspapers, along with 20 individuals and organisations such as the Beyers Naudé’s Christian Institute and the Union of Black Journalists.

Editors Percy Qoboza and Aggrey Klaaste were also taken to solitary confinement where they spent five months and several journalists, such as Mathatha Tsedu, current press ombud Joe Tlholoe and Don Mattera, were imprisoned after which they were banned for five years. — additional reporting by Sapa

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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.