/ 22 November 2011

Black Tuesday: Test of SA’s democratic principles

The passing of the secrecy Bill today would mark the beginning of the end of the freedom of information we cherish as a pillar of our democracy.

Editors of newspapers across the country have joined their voices to warn against the passing of the secrecy Bill today, which would “mark the beginning of the end of the freedom of information we cherish as a pillar of the Constitution that guards our future”.

    Mark this day. Depending on the actions of the 400 MPs in the National Assembly at 2pm, it will end as a day of triumph or of shame for our adolescent democracy.

    Every member of Parliament who presses the green button to vote “yes” for the Protection of State Information Bill will at that moment take personal responsibility for the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid that dismantles an aspect of our democracy — a betrayal that will haunt them forever.

    The African National Congress has protested against comparisons between this vote and Black Wednesday, the banning on October 19 1977 of the World and the detention of its editor, Percy Qoboza, and staff — including Aggrey Klaaste.

    But this vote comes amidst escalating attacks by the ANC on reporters, newspapers and the freedom of the press. Adoption of the Bill could be the first step in a series of attacks, including the creation of the media appeals tribunal mooted by the ANC, that slowly strangle our freedom to know what is being done in our name.

    The spreading culture of self-enrichment, either corrupt or merely inappropriate, makes scrutiny by a free media which is fuelled by whistle blowers who have the public interest at heart more essential than ever since 1994.

    If members of the ANC cannot muster the courage to defy their party’s leaders and repudiate the Bill, it will again — as it was under apartheid — be up to those willing to go to jail for a very long time to expose the abuse of state power.

    Covering up corruption is not the primary intention of the so-called secrecy Bill — it includes clauses that criminalise its misuse just to avoid embarrassment — but without the means to demonstrate that abuse, the Protection of State Information Bill will be the wall behind which much evil is hidden.

    Anyone who leaks a secret, anyone who takes possession of a secret and anyone who publishes a secret will go to jail, without the option of a fine — potentially for up to 25 years. Motivation will be no mitigation.

    Despite repeated assurances that the ANC intends no harm to the media and despite Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s apparent acceptance of a public interest clause earlier this month, the party has refused to give judges the right to balance culpability against public good.

    Motlanthe has acknowledged that the proposed public interest defence would have to be tested by a judge and almost every submission during Parliament’s public hearings on the Bill called for a last-resort escape clause, but still the ANC has refused.

    Pliable Parliament
    The Bill was presented and withdrawn by Ronnie Kasrils, the minister of intelligence at the time, in 2008. Then last year President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet refocused that draft and sent it back to a more pliable Parliament with instructions to ensure its adoption.

    The ANC did accept more than 120 amendments which greatly improved the original draft. These included a narrowing of the justification for sealing state information and enhanced provisions for oversight and appeal.

    But without a public interest clause, this framework for secrecy remains a massive brake on the free flow of information to the people in whose name a tightly protected elite purports to govern.

    Opposition parties have declared their intention to oppose the Protection of State Information Bill today. ANC members will be required by the rules of party discipline to be present for the vote and to support it.

    We, the editors of the following South African newspapers, appeal to ANC MPs who will vote today to put the future of your country ahead of your own future in the party and reject this appalling Bill .

    Provincial intervention
    If not enough MPs have the courage to do the right thing, we urge the Cabinet to use the Bill ‘s passage through the National Council of Provinces to redraft it with the inclusion of a public interest defence clause.

    If it passes through the legislature in its current form, we appeal to President Zuma to exercise his right to submit the Bill to the Constitutional Court for ratification before he signs it into law.

    If none of these things happens, it will be up to civil society and the political opposition to ask that court to declare it the abomination that it is.

    Without a triumph of personal integrity over political expediency in the National Assembly this afternoon, this day will mark the beginning of the end of the freedom of information we cherish as a pillar of the Constitution that guards our future.

    The Mail & Guardian; the Star; Business Day; the Times; the Herald; Sowetan; die Burger; Cape Times; Beeld; the Mercury; Pretoria News; Cape Times; the Witness; die Son; Daily Sun; Volksblad; Daily Dispatch; die Son; Daily Sun

Black Tuesday: Demonstrations
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 — 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.

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.

Sign the petition or lobby parliament here.

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