As Secrecy Bill looms, R2K announces march to Pretoria for International Right to Know Day (28 September)
R2K notes the extension of the NCOP’s “Secrecy Bill” deadline to 31 October, announced last night. We also note that members of the ANC caucus have called for an end to the debate and for the Bill to be voted through in its current form. (See Mail & Guardian, “Secrecy Bill is ‘one or two meetings away'”)
Two years of relentless public pressure have yielded a significantly less dangerous piece of legislation than the 2010 version — but today we are faced with a Secrecy Bill that remains an assault on open democracy. We recognise the progressive changes made over the past two years, but there are still piles and piles of loopholes — in who gets to make secrets, and on what grounds they can do so — that provide protection to officials who would abuse their power to make secrets, and intimidate, silence and punish people who would try drag these secrets into the light.
In particular, the Secrecy Bill’s champions will be haunted by their failure to heed the call for a public domain defence and proper public interest defence. Likewise, they will have failed to ensure the independence of the oversight body that is meant to prevent abuses of power (the Classification Review Panel); how can they exercise effective oversight over the Minister of State Security when his office determines their budget and pays their bills? And how can the Panel protect the public’s right to access information if there is no mechanism for the public to approach it?
The Right2Know Campaign is calling a march to the Union Building in Pretoria on Friday 28 September — as part of International Right to Know Day. Help spread the word by sharing our Facebook event.
What still needs to be won?
• We note the scrapping of Clause 1(4), which would have had the Secrecy Bill undermine the Promotion of Access to Information Act and related legislation. This is a significant victory.
Major remaining challenges
However, significant problems still remain:
- The Espionage Offences (Clause 36) is so broadly drafted that it can be used to criminalise whistleblowers. If convicted of ‘espionage’, a person would face a minimum sentence of 10 years and maximum sentences of 25 years for exposing information “that may directly or indirectly benefit a foreign state”.
- Though the limited whistleblower protection in clause 43 is a significant gain from the past few months, it falls short of meeting our demands for a full public interest defence.
- The Bill contains no Public Domain Defence – so even once information has been exposed to the public by a whistleblower, members of the public themselves face up to 5 years in jail for possessing the document.
- The Bill is retrospective so it protects all those documents classified by the apartheid government, and broad abuse of secrecy policies since 1996 — despite the fact that many of these are in the public domain. People who have been researching/documenting these abuses over the past decades would become instant criminals because what is in their filing cabinets.
- In addition, the Secrecy Bill still insists that the Ministry of State Security should become the chief archivist of “valuable” information held by every organ of state. It also contradicts the National Archives and Records Services of South Africa Act of 1996
- All other loopholes, well documented by R2K over the past few months, have not been addressed
Call to action!
From our understanding of the events last night, there is huge pressure coming to bear on ANC members of the committee to bring this process to a close without further amendments. While MPs call for just one more meeting to finalise the Secrecy Bill for a vote, R2K is planning a march through the streets of Pretoria on International Right to Know Day (Friday 28 September) to sound the alarm.
For comment contact:
R2K Gauteng – Dale McKinley: 072 429 4086
R2K Western Cape – Nkwame Cedile: 078 227 6008
R2K KZN – Desmond D’Sa: 083 982 6939
R2K Eastern Cape – Thembani Zion Onceya: 078 843 7489
R2K National coordinator – Murray Hunter: 072 672 5468