Info bill : slippery slope towards a more authoritarian state

The Zuma-led ANC have given many indications the last few years that they have a very limited understanding of what a constitutional democracy is – or perhaps they understand, but don’t agree with the concept, even though they were the co-architects of our constitution.

We’ve heard Jacob Zuma and his ministers and party leaders declare that the media was the “enemy of the people”; we heard warnings to the Constitutional Court that they shouldn’t think they’re more important than the elected politicians; we witnessed the railroaded appointment of a junior, patently unqualified but tame, executive-minded Chief Justice. And so on.

But yesterday the ANC confirmed our worst expectations: they actually took the first concrete step since our negotiated settlement of 1994 to limit our democracy.

There is a difference between rhetoric or political threats and pushing a bill through Parliament that would become the law of the land.

Crossing of a Rubicon

If the ANC doesn’t come to their senses – or the Constitutional Court doesn’t come to our rescue – the prison sentences for quite a few journalists were signed yesterday. (Which was why I tweeted yesterday that journalists should now start campaigning for better prison conditions as an insurance policy…)

The ANC’s steamrolling of the Protection of Information Bill through Parliament was without a doubt a crossing of a Rubicon; a firm step towards a very slippery slope towards a more authoritarian state.

Judged by the bloody minded mood the ANC was in yesterday, we can expect firm moves soon to launch the Media Appeals Tribunal that would give politicians a say over the media. The gloves are now well and truly off.

I stood at the entrance of Parliament yesterday afternoon as part of the Black Tuesday protest looking at the members of Parliament filing in to vote on the bill.

My mind went back to the late 1980s when I was an editor of what was then called an “alternative” newspaper – one of a small number of independent newspapers that vowed to fight the apartheid state and expose its evils, even if it meant breaking the law.

Harassed by the government

We were harassed with great energy by the government. I picked up quite a criminal record and had my offices blown up – they even tried to assassinate me. This happened to other colleagues too.

The same party, in fact, some of the very same men who voted yesterday to curtail the information the public would be able to get, encouraged us, gave us moral support and lobbied on our behalf with the international community.

Shame on them.

The original bill was a much worse monster. The ANC must have known that the Constitutional Court judges would have sent them away with their tail between their legs, because, with the help of the opposition, it was much improved.

In fact, it has become quite a good bit of legislation, and much needed.

Draconian and dangerous

There was just one further step the ANC had to take: include a provision that says if a person (whistleblower, journalist, activist) is in possession of classified information, he/she could prove to a court of law that he/she didn’t want to steal state information for personal reasons or to spy for a foreign government, but that it was in the national public interest to have it and disseminate it.

Without this clause, the bill is draconian and dangerous.

Minister Siyabonga Cwele lied to Parliament when he said this provision doesn’t exist in other democracies. Canada is but one example with such a clause inserted in a similar piece of legislation covering state secrets.

I have never met or heard of a South African journalist who would want to damage the interests of the South African people by plastering sensitive state secrets all over the front page. For one, the readers wouldn’t have it.

The “spies” and “information peddlers” the minister warned us about would hardly stand up in court and claim that their illegal activities were in the public interest. Only investigative journalists, whistleblowers and community activists would do that – and if the court didn’t accept their arguments, they would go to jail for a very long time.

Investigative journalism expensive

By the way, the accusation from some ANC politicians that newspapers oppose this bill because they want to sell papers through sensationalism is absolute nonsense.

Government scandals and reports on state wrongdoing, with all the information and explanation that have to go with it, don’t sell newspapers. Look at last Sunday’s Rapport newspaper: their recipe for good sales is sex, celebrities, sport, crime and white victimhood.

Investigative journalism is expensive and risky. Newspapers invest in it mostly because they believe it is what their role in society should be.

And shame on those who want to inject race into this issue. The truth is rich whites will be least affected by a new veil of secrecy – many white businessmen who do business with the state would love the new law.

It is ordinary citizens who will suffer, especially the poor, because they are the most vulnerable – if you steal from the state, you steal from the poor.

This Bill has the potential, very real potential, to hide corruption, cronyism and reckless spending from the public.

Perhaps that is exactly the reason why the ANC was resisting the public interest defence clause so fiercely.

Not the end of democracy

But no, we’re not about to become Zimbabwe (although this must certainly be a symptom of what senior SACP leader Jeremy Cronin called the “Zanu-fication” of the ANC).

No, this is not the end of our democracy.

In fact, it could be exactly the injection our democracy needed – it opened the eyes of many to the real intentions of the ruling party.

Black Tuesday may just be the trigger for a powerful new wave of civic action and heightened vigilance on the part of ordinary citizens.

It certainly would be a kick up the backside of our media to be more innovative and alert and take their role as watchdogs of our democracy even more seriously.

– Max du Preez is an independent Journalist
[date] 2011-11-23

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