Friday, September 17, 2010

Right 2 Know campaign launches in Gauteng

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William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa

The state is seeking to undermine media freedom and restrict access to information according to the Right 2 Know campaign. The umbrella body, comprising NGOs, media and civil rights groups has gathered over 9000 signatures of individuals and organisations to protest against the Protection of Information Bill currently before parliament (as well as the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal or ‘MAT’).

The movement launched its Gauteng chapter on Wednesday 15 September at the Wits University School of Law to an audience of academics, students and interested citizens. Campaign organisers argued that these plans represent a threat to constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and access to information, and conflict with existing legislation, such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa, one of the principal NGOs behind the Right 2 Know campaign, spoke in no uncertain terms about the potential dangers. “Let the truth be told, stop the Secrecy Bill!” he proclaimed. “It affects all of us … anybody within SA’s borders will be affected by this Bill if it were to go through in its current form; meaning that we wouldn’t have half the access to information that we currently do."

One of the problems of the “Secrecy Bill” is the appeal mechanism. If a citizen wishes to oppose classification of a document, he or she needs to lodge a complaint to have it overturned – to the very minister who classified the information in the first place. Said minister could easily deny this request by citing state security concerns defined under a broad ‘national interest’ clause in the act.

This, according to Freedom of Expression Institute Executive Director Ayesha Kajee, will create “super-ministers” who will lack accountability. Kajee warned that when writing legislation the effect can be lasting. The present government needs to consider how its worst enemies would misuse these laws were they to get into power, she said.

In addition, no ‘public interest’ clause was present in the Bill, which effectively forbids leaks of classified information being made under any circumstances. It would make revealing, or being in possession of, such information a criminal offence, potentially having a chilling effect on citizens or journalists seeking to investigate corruption or of whistle-blowers revealing malfeasance.

The Freedom of Expression Network, a grassroots organisation seeking to promote transparency and accountability, was adamant that the message be carried to ordinary citizens. “This Bill will turn South Africa into a society of secrets, impeding the free flow of information,” said Siphiwe Segodi, a coordinator of the FXN. Segodi called for forums such as Nedlac to be used to pressurize the government to revise its stance. The campaign needed to work closely with Cosatu, as the Bill will affect the right to protest and to strike, he said.

The Secrecy Bill would also have a negative affect on the ability of academics to pursue their research effectively, according Anthony Butler, Professor of Political Studies at Wits. Butler noted that the ANC had a long history of antagonism towards academic institutions and other civic groups that have sought to influence the public policy agenda, and that the Bill was a continuation of this. But he also added that “Universities have not perhaps reflected hard enough on their own limitations and weaknesses,” in terms of their historic place in a divided society.

Gabriella Razzano, of the South African History Archive, insisted that “if this Bill is passed in anything that looks like its current form there will definitely be a challenge in court run by this campaign.” However, there were also calls to let the legislature consider the Bill in full and to report back with adjustments. A judicial challenge could be left open as a secondary means of resistance, following civic action and public participation into the drafting process.

Photo: David Ansara

3 comments:

  1. Nice post Dave - very informative for those of us abroad. It's very frightening that this is actually happening in SA.

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  2. Thanks Morgan,

    Glad it could keep you informed. It really has its roots in a desire for control, rather than openness and accountability. It is also concerning that this is how the ANC behaves with a near two-thirds majority. How will they react if their power is actually threatened?

    David

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  3. Mo, if you're concerned, why not sign the statement:

    http://www.right2know.org.za/

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