R2K is dismayed at reported comments of the Minister of State Security, praising the ‘Secrecy Bill’ and recommitting government to its anti-democratic provisions.
City Press quotes the Minister as saying, “I know that when I came in, they were holding the bill back… It’s a good law. I’ve read it.”
It has now been 544 days since Parliament sent the Secrecy Bill on to the Presidency – after it was briefly referred back there by the President, merely to correct typos in the original draft of the Bill.
Given the Presidency’s silence on the Secrecy Bill in the past 18 months, it would have been fair to assume that government had effectively rejected the draconian Bill. We welcome this admission of the Bill’s fatal flaws – the right thing to do is to either send it back to Parliament to start afresh, or to refer it directly to the Constitutional Court.
Instead, Minister Mahlobo’s remarks promise that the Bill is to be returned to the fast track, despite its devastating effect on the free flow of information. The Bill would criminalise whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and civil society activists who use information and freedom of expression to hold secretive government dealings to account.
The media reports on South Africa’s ‘Spy Cables’ scandal in March 2015 show exactly the damage that could be done by the Secrecy Bill. Those reports uncovered important information in the public interest – including a plan by the State Security Agency to spy on civil society groups at the COP17 climate talks, and share intelligence on “rogue NGOs” and political dissidents with a variety of allies. The cables also exposed the various backroom dealings and disregard for human rights of various international intelligence agencies.
Yet these public reports could easily have been criminalised under the Secrecy Bill’s broad and elastic definition of ‘espionage’, which carries penalties of up to 25 years in jail, and has no public interest defence.
Minister Mahlobo also sarcastically warned critics of the Bill not to “start teaching each other what human rights mean, what this freedom means and what the responsibilities are.”
This is a particularly regrettable comment, given recent criticism of the State Security Agency’s track record on transparency and human rights. This has included the release of a report on the SSA’s apparent involvement in spying on community groups, unions and other civil society organisations, and its discredited investigation of alleged ‘CIA’ affiliations of the Public Protector and others. (See R2K’s “Big Brother Exposed” report.)
R2K reiterates its call: Let the truth be told. Stop the Secrecy Bill!
For more information on what’s still wrong with the Secrecy Bill, see r2k.org.za/secrecy-bill.