Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, has thrown his organisation’s full weight behind the fight against the Protection of State Information Bill, vowing to march to the Union Buildings if the problematic legislation is sent to President Jacob Zuma to be signed into law.
He said it wasn’t just the media who were under threat — South Africa’s workers had much to lose if the proposed legislation, which lays out potentially harsh penalties for whistle-blowing, were to be enacted.
Vavi, who met members of the South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) and the Right2Know campaign on Wednesday, also committed to a “consolidated legal strategy”, noting it would make sense to join forces with other organisations that have vowed to take the Bill to the Constitutional Court if necessary.
The three organisations met at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg to hammer out a seven-point plan of action now that the secrecy Bill, as it has been dubbed by activists, has been passed by the National Assembly.
The plan includes a summit tackling the Bill to be held in late January or early February, with representation from a broad section of society.
The meeting, with its renewed show of unity and plan of action, comes in the wake of criticisms levelled at the media that the fight against the Bill has been too confined to industry — and elite — concerns.
Grassroots stand to lose the most
Political analyst Stephen Friedman argued earlier this month in Business Day that those campaigning against the Bill have “presented a threat to the rights of the grassroots poor as one to the media”, questioning whether the Bill would have survived “if it had faced the sustained resistance of the grassroots, who stand most to lose from it”.
Vavi dealt at length with how the proposed law would affect South African workers, saying it would provide a serious deterrent against whistle-blowing. “[Workers] will be too afraid to touch any information marked as secret — and believe me, every document of government is marked secret.”
The legislation was intended to overhaul outdated apartheid law and address threats of espionage, which Vavi was at pains to point out Cosatu supported. “We are absolutely hostile to espionage,” said Vavi. “But the problem is it is so broad, that it goes way beyond what we support.”
As the Bill stands, anyone who receives leaked documents would be compelled to hand them to the police or face prosecution. If they felt the information was in the public interest they would then have to request that the minister of state security declassify the documents. Those who contravened the law would be subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to 25 years.
Civil groups lobbied unsuccessfully to have a public interest clause included, which would protect individuals who disclose classified information on the basis that the public’s right to know outweighs any potential harm that would come from revealing the information.
“Workers are poor and unable to employ the best of lawyers,” said Vavi, echoing Friedman’s concern that “media organisations have far more of the resources needed to get hold of documents that officials and politicians do not want us to see, it is clear that the real losers will not be the media but grassroots citizens”.
Sanef’s chairperson, Mondli Makhanya, pointed out that Cosatu was not a “new convert” to the cause, noting that the trade union movement and alliance member had long opposed the Bill and made “comprehensive submissions” to Parliament about problematic clauses.
Chairperson of Sanef’s media freedom committee, Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Nic Dawes, said that the meeting between the two bodies was not about the media legitimising their concerns, but rather took an ongoing conversation forward, and to a new level politically.
Vavi said: “In its current form the legislation will simply undermine or supersede other pieces of legislation that have been passed by Parliament.”
These included Bills that Cosatu has championed, including the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 and the Labour Relations Act of 1995, which protects whistle-blowers in the work place.
The seven-point plan includes:
- Education. Right2Know’s Dale McKinley noted that many did not know what was in the Bill — “including the authors of the Bill,” he wryly added.
- Awareness, including getting prominent South Africans to speak out against the Bill;
- A petition;
- A march to the union buildings with Cosatu, to plead with Zuma not to sign the Bill into law should it be passed through the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) unchanged;
- A summit in early 2012, representing a broad range of South Africans;
- Ongoing activism; and
- Cooperating and coordinating legal issues
But while Vavi was hopeful about the next stage of the Bill, saying that the NCOP had contacted Cosatu to say that it would take on board the concerns that were raised, he was still apprehensive.
“We think we have reason to be very concerned about the future of our country,” he said. “The Bill undermines the letter and the spirit of our Constitution.”
He quoted extensively from the Freedom Charter and the Bill of Rights, drawing up a case for the government’s own tradition of freedom of expression.
“These are not liberal or western concerns,” he said. “These are the values that arise directly from the Freedom Charter and our Bill of Rights.”
Communists side with ANC
Meanwhile, the ANC’s other alliance partner, the South African Communist Party, (SACP) has come out in support of the Bill.
The party’s general secretary Blade Nzimande called the fight against the Bill “an ideological offensive against the national democratic revolution”, in a speech to the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union on Friday.
While the SACP raised concerns about earlier versions of the Bill, Nzimande said the party was “now satisfied that with the many amendments introduced to this Bill, it is now an acceptable piece of legislation”.
He lambasted “liberals” and print media for what he dubbed a disinformation campaign, which he accused of “lying that the Bill allows all government departments and other state organs to classify information. The Bill is restricted only to security organs of the state [such as defence, police and intelligence].”
However Right2Know points out that while the power to classify and declassify information has been limited to the security services, police, defence and intelligence, there is still a “back door” provision for the minister of state security to grant this power to any one of over a thousand organs of state that have “good cause”.
The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill raises the threat to media freedom. View our special report.