Civic organisations say the passing of the secrecy Bill came as no surprise but they would continue to fight it at the National Council of Provinces.
The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill came as no surprise as all indications were that the ANC would use their majority to push the legislation through Parliament.
This is according to Dale McKinley, spokesperson for the Right2Know campaign, a coalition of civil society organisations that has widely campaigned against the Bill.
The National Assembly passed the Protection of Information Bill on Tuesday with 229 votes in favour. There were 107 votes against the Bill and two abstentions. The Bill was adopted by majority vote after the Democratic Alliance called for the Bill to be postponed.
Opposition parties present in the House voted against the measure, while hundreds of black-clad activists protested against it outside the gates of Parliament and elsewhere in the country. Editors who attended the parliamentary session staged a walk-out after the Bill was voted in.
McKinley said the ANC had “run roughshod” over the concerns of the public. “The ANC is moving further and further away from being a party that listens to its constituents,” he said, pointing out that public consultations on the Bill had not been held. But McKinley said “the battle is not over”.
“The ANC is going to find out that you cannot constrain information. You cannot suppress the truth,” he said.
Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Nic Dawes, said he was disappointed that ANC MPs had decided to vote in favour of the Bill.
“So many South Africans made it clear that the Bill is a danger to democracy and it wouldn’t have been that difficult to make some final changes to it. Instead we’re left with a flawed and dangerous legislation,” he said.
The Bill gives the state broad-sweeping rights to classify information it deems as sensitive as secret and there is no provision to allow whistleblowers to leak information that may be in the public interest without facing legal censure.
But Dawes said this was “not the end of the road” as the Bill could still be fixed at the National Council Of Provinces. “If that doesn’t happen, it can still be sent to the Constitutional Court by MPs or sent back to Parliament by President Jacob Zuma. And if that does’t happen we can still take the legal route in order to get the Bill struck down,” he said. This would involve going to the Constitutional Court and arguing that the Bill does not accord with basic constitutional principles.
The DA’s spokesperson on justice and constitutional development, Dene Smuts, said that although today’s vote was a foregone conclusion, it was also significant in that, rather than passing through in a matter of minutes as is usually the case, the vote and discussion went on for a whole hour.
“It was an event of some significance that sent a clear message that everybody will be watching the passage of the Bill through its second stage”.
In this second stage, the Bill will pass through the National Council of Provinces in the coming months. Although this process is often considered to be merely a rubber-stamping of Parliament’s decision, Smuts said that she believed that with this Bill it would not be the case.
Smuts said the solidarity displayed by various sectors of society had strengthened the hand of those seeking to get further amendments to the legislation but warned that misleading reporting on the issue could “harden the attitudes” of those voting on the Bill.
Professor Steven Friedman of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg believes the way in which the Bill was campaigned against was wrong.
“This is a threat to freedom but those campaigning against the Bill have misinterpreted why it’s bad call. It’s not about the media being shut down but rather because it will protect intelligence services from scrutiny and protect local officials from being kept in check by citizens.
“The important issue going forward is trying to change the view that the issue of freedom is merely a middle-class one. If we think of freedom as merely an issue for the middle-class or professionals then we won’t effectively protect freedom in this country.
“Freedom affects everybody and we need to realise the freedom of those living in shack settlements and townships is as important as the freedom of everyone else. If we want to prevent further pieces of legislation like this being passed, we need to tackle this notion,” he said.
The Bill seeks to create a law that would allow any organ of state, from the largest government department down to the smallest municipality, to classify any document as secret and set out harsh penalties of up to 25 years in jail for whistleblowers.
The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill came as no surprise, raising the threat to media freedom. View our special report.