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Staggering Backwards: Secrecy Bill threatens freedom of speech and democracy in South Africa

 

Staggering Backwards; Secrecy Bill threatens freedom of speech and democracy in South Africa

Last week, on what protestors have urged people to call “Black Tuesday,” there was a great stir about the secrecy bill passed in South Africa. This bill criminalizes not only the publication of information considered “classified” but also the unauthorised possession of “classified material”.  Sensitive information includes any information “relating to the protection and the preservation of all things owned or maintained by the state” as well as all information considered “valuable” – of course, valuable is not defined. The bill claims to recognize the importance of transparency in an “open and democratic society” but also seems to argue that secrecy is necessary to protect citizens and their freedom – ironically giving it the name ‘the Protection Bill’.  Thus, one can logically infer that the bill seeks to protect the freedom of citizens by denying it.

The so-called “protection bill” is being considered by most a great stagger backwards – especially for South Africa, a country incredibly proud of their relatively newfound democracy following apartheid.  The bill is seen by some as not only a threat to freedom of speech, but democracy and the South African constitution as well. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the brilliant Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has himself declared the bill “unacceptable” and an affront to the people of South Africa. He’s not the only one – critics of this bill also include the office of Nelson Mandela, literature laureate Nadine Gordimer, countless journalists, religious organizations, and South African civil rights activists, among others.  The bill was apparently designed by taking into account the importance of media in democracy and seeking to balance this out with “critical issues of national security”. From the stance of those opposed to this bill, the scales seem entirely tipped in the favour of silence.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, courtesy Elya

Newspaper blackouts have begun and those guilty of publishing or possessing information considered classified face up to a staggering 15 years in prison. To add insult to injury, the proposed punishment for hiding information that need not be hidden is a ridiculous 3 years. Why is it a greater crime to reveal than conceal in a state that has fought so hard for their democracy? Freedom of the press is necessary for a functional and healthy democracy because journalists, as it were, “bear witness” and in bearing witness can allow citizens to do the same. Furthermore, a free press allows citizens to be privy to and act against injustice. A democracy is a government run by the people and for them. When the press is too afraid to blow the whistle on the government, how can democracy be insured? Without freedom of the press, how can South Africa consider itself a true democracy, as it once claimed and strove to be?

 

Meagan Potier

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