Opinionista Fred Roed 18 August 2010

Stop worrying and learn to laugh at The Protection of Information Bill

The proposed Protection of Information Bill is an exercise in purest futility. The Information Express left the station years ago and simply cannot be stopped. Just ask the Chinese or the American intelligence community.

In the past few days I’ve overheard, read and engaged in conversations about the new bill that’s currently before Parliament. Some excerpts:

”South Africa is buying a one way ticket to hell.”

“This is the last straw!”

“We’re stepping back to the National Party methods of the 1980s”

Calm down, folks. Now, don’t get me wrong here. I agree that the bill itself is dangerous. The fact is, I have a more grave concern that it’s a gross miscarriage of intelligence. In my opinion, it’s possibly the dumbest thing politicians have done since Eugene (Terre Blanche’s Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging) invaded Bophuthatswana.

But here’s the thing. It’s not dumb because I think passing it will screw up the country. It’s dumb because it’s a massive waste of time. So, don’t waste your time worrying about it.

To elucidate, let’s cast our minds back to China pre-2000. The most populous country in the world was a journalist’s nightmare. If you wanted to report a topical story, you literally had to risk your life to get a scoop. Remember Tiananmen Square? Ask a Chinese government official and the standard response would have been “What Tiananmen Square?” Then suddenly something magical happened. They opened up – not because they wanted to, but because they had to. The media suddenly had a free view of the inner workings of previously the most secretive state on the planet, and it was all due to the Internet. News spread at lightning pace because of the social phenomenon happening within China’s borders. (Quick fact: China’s biggest social networking site, QQ, is part-owned by a South African company.)

Take, for example, the earthquake that shook the Chinese province of Sichuan on 19 May 2008. Within minutes, the entire world knew about it. Not only did we most of what was happening, we observed the terror as it unfolded, thanks to videos, blogs, comments and instant messages uploaded via the Internet. Now, contrast this to previous earthquakes in China only a few years before. The Chinese denied they even happened. Furthermore, journalists were too afraid to report anything due to information restrictions not dissimilar to what is being considered now in South Africa. Nowadays, China is painfully realising that those kinds of restrictions are futile.

The same thing happened during Kenya’s election riots. News (defined as information that’s new) was provided not by the big media companies, but by ordinary folk with cellphones taking photographs and uploading blog posts.

What the people trying to pass this Protection of Information Bill are failing to recognise is that consumption and transmission of information have moved online? Consider that between 2004 and 2009, readership of newspapers worldwide dropped by 17% and magazines by 6%. During the same period, the time people spend digesting online media increased by 117%.

The hotheads in Parliament would do well to watch “The Boat That Rocked”, the 2009 movie about a pirate radio station which the British government tried in vain to shut down. Should the Protection of Information Bill be passed, online news channels will become like pirate deejays broadcasting from boats off the coast of England. Only this time there will be millions of boats, varying  in size (and, of course, quality).  If you look at the South African context, all the major news channels have an online entity. There are 10 million people with access to the Internet on their mobile phones. Twitter is growing fast; and there are more than a million South Africans with a Facebook profile. Breaking news is being transmitted via these channels in the form of hundreds of millions of messages, every day.

That’s a lot of information to monitor and suppress. 

So, don’t stress about The Protection of Information Bill more than you really have to. It would be like stressing about school teachers who want to prevent boys talking about girls; a pointless waste of energy over a pointless decree. The Bill is wrong, for sure, but my prediction is that South Africa’s dear leaders will soon recognise the inherent futility in all this nonsense.

Right now, what you should be doing is growing your online profile. Step out of the shadows, digitally speaking. Register a Twitter profile. Sign up for The Daily Maverick daily newsletter. Watch, and share, some YouTube videos. Invite some more friends on Facebook. Join a group. Start a blog.

Restricting information has never worked. It’s just not sustainable. It didn’t work in the 1980s for the Nats. It’s not worked in China. It won’t work in South Africa. Our strength is in numbers. History has shown, even before the digital age, that information in the hands of many can’t be protected.


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