Media, Politics, South Africa

Government launches a clumsy secrecy bill advertising spree

Government launches a clumsy secrecy bill advertising spree

With big guns like Zwelinzima Vavi, George Bizos and Thuli Madonsela opposing the Protection of State Information Bill, the State Security Agency has embarked on a propaganda offensive. But the campaign may hit the wall because it appears government has exceeded its mandate. By MANDY DE WAAL.

South Africa’s State Security Agency has launched a propaganda campaign to sway public hearts and minds about the Protection of State Information Bill. The bill is currently under the jurisdiction of parliament and, as such, government appears to be flouting how the state is constituted and run by advertising the bill, an entity over which it has no dominion. The advert was created by the  agency, and the media placement for the campaign was done by the Government Communication and Information System, which falls under The Presidency.

“The overriding problem with these adverts is that they comment on a piece of legislation that doesn’t yet belong to the government,” said Lindiwe Mazibuko, leader of the DA in Parliament. “For state security and GCIS to comment on something that does not belong to them and has not yet been completed by parliament is madness.”

Mazibuko said she’ll be taking the matter up “first thing”.“For the state security department to engage in this propaganda campaign on behalf of a piece of legislation that is not theirs and doesn’t exist yet is a flagrant disregard of the separation of powers,” Mazibuko said.

She added that the bill ceased to belong to the very government department that introduced it when parliamentary deliberations began. “Parliament is the only institution that should be commenting on, or engaging with this piece of legislation. We are going to take this up with government at the first opportunity,” Mazibuko said.

The DA’s parliamentary leader believes that using taxpayers’ money to advance a bill for political purposes is doing the bidding of a political party over the work of the state, which pays government’s salary. “This is a misuse of public money, and we are obviously going to use the tools of parliament to ask questions. There is nothing that Jimmy Manyi [the CEO of GCIS] or the presidency will do to prevent us from accessing that information,” she said.

When asked for comment on how much the media placement cost the taxpayer, Manyi was not forthcoming. “You are just likely to misled. I am not understanding how that information is going to add value,” Manyi said in response to Daily Maverick’s questions on what the campaign bill for the ad was. When pressed for an answer Manyi said GCIS would not be held accountable to the public interest by members of the media.

“It is going to be very difficult for government officials to be sitting here and doing annual reports on a daily basis. We have a structure called parliament which provides oversight for government departments. Every quarter we go to parliament and that is where we account. If everyone is going to raise the public interest and want us to account to all kinds of individuals it is not going to be sustainable,” Manyi said.

“If there is a media conference, that is the proper place where we could do this, but to answer like this it is really not effective. How can we sit here and be responding one by one to media? Everyone thinks they can call you to account on the ticket of public interest. It just doesn’t work. We are not answering to the media. We are only answerable to parliament,” he said.

Jayshree Pather of the Right2Know (R2K), a coalition of over 400 civic organisations and 16,000 individuals opposed to the bill, said the messaging used in the campaign was misleading. “R2K will be lodging a complaint with ASA [the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa] later this week on the basis that ASA’s code says there must be ‘honesty’. Our view is that the ad is confusing and is in contravention of the code,” said Pather, adding that the ASA’s code states adverts must be ‘prepared with a sense of responsibility for the consumer’.

The one-minute-long Protection of State Information Bill advert currently being aired on Radio Metro can be heard on YouTube, and the copy for the advert follows below:

Female Voice: “Are you following the debate about this new law everyone is talking about? Something about state information?”

Male Voice: “Yes. And I see you are looking a little bit worried. All this stuff about identity theft, people being long dead but collecting pensions, [indistinct].”

Female Voice: “But what about corruption? How will the government deal with that?”

Male Voice: “The bill makes it clear that if people try to cover up corruption they will go to jail for up to 15 years, and whistleblowers will be protected.”

Female Voice: “That’s good. But will we still be able to get the information we need from the government?”

Male Voice: “Yes. Our constitution gives us that right. As for the press, the bill doesn’t suppress press freedom at all. When you want information that is classified, you just have to apply for it. If you are still not happy, you can go to court and the judge will decide if it is in everyone’s interest.”

Female Voice: “Yes, sounds reasonable.”

Male Voice: “The thing is that government has to protect its information from criminals. There are spies out there that want to steal our information to develop their own countries at our expense.”

Female Voice: “I see. I want to familiarise myself with the bill more. There’s so much I didn’t know.”

Male Voice: “Great, ‘cause it’s really important that government protects its information. It is about protecting our country and its hard-won freedom. Ensuring that we all live in peace, security and prosperity.”

Daily Maverick asked ‘Opinionista’ Ivo Vegter to analyse the advert. Vegter was a finalist for the Bastiat Prize, an international award for writing that explains, promotes and defends the principles of the free society.

“It starts with a blatant red herring about identity theft,” wrote Vegter in his response. “The Protection of State Information Bill is not about personal information. Identity theft is already illegal, and personal information is already protected,” he said.

“It dishonestly misrepresents the key concerns. Nobody is claiming that the state does not have the right to classify information. The claim is that the definition of what may be classified – anything that could harm the national or economic interests of the country – is hopelessly vague and broad, and could cover almost anything the government or a state-owned entity does,” Vegter said. “A further claim is that it extends classifying power to far too many government functionaries, with far too little by way of checks and balances. On these points, the advert is silent.”

Vegter maintains the statement about corruption in the commercial constitutes a straw-man argument, and he believes the statement about whistleblowers being protected is false. “A whistleblower who leaks secret information without the consent of government is guilty under this law, because it contains no public interest defence. Not only is the source of the leak guilty (for breaking a law they agree to uphold as part of their job), but so is the person receiving the leaked information, as well as anyone who publishes it. All can be sentenced to many years in prison, without any defence being available to them. This effectively criminalises investigative journalism,” says Vegter.

“It makes it sound like it will be easy for the media to obtain classified information should they have grounds to do so. Sure, they can apply for it. They can also be denied. Not only is it a prohibitive burden to be required to constantly apply to the courts to claim access to documents on grounds of public interest, but since the bill does not include a public interest clause, I fail to see on what legal grounds a judge could order a document to be released. That claim appears to me to be another outright falsehood,” he says.??Vegter concludes by noting that the woman in the advert appears naive and misinformed, while the male condescendingly instructs her. “She is gullible enough to accept that she just needs to ‘read up a bit more’. That’s sexist stereotyping, even if it didn’t involve so many lies,” Vegter says.

R2K’s Pather concurs with Vegter “The messaging is confusing and misleading. It says nothing about the crux of the bill or its main provisions,” she says, adding that the advert dodges the core issue, which is about what kind of society South Africa is trying to build – one of secrets or one of openness.

Organisations and individuals opposing the bill marched to parliament last week, where final public hearings were held, while a small contingent of ANC supporters marched on the legislature to show support for the proposed law.

With heavyweights like Cosatu’s Vavi, Madonsela and Bizos opposing the law, the government advert presents more of a calculated effort to muster public support for the proposed legislation that will be used against the very same public. And, of course, the government is using the money it received from, you guessed it, the very same public. DM

Read more:

  • The long and winding road of the Info Bill on IOL News.
  • Vavi, Bizos threaten to take secrecy bill to court in Business Day.
  • Info Bill resistance: Cosatu treads carefully in Mail & Guardian.
  • Department of State Security releases adverts defending POSIB.

Photo: South Africa’s State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele sits in court before his wife Sheryl Cwele appears in the Pietermaritzburg High Court 5 February 2010. REUTERS/Stringer.


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