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New ‘participative’ Secrecy Bill process could backfire on the media


Chris Vick is chairperson of Mobilize, which launched the Energy Comms campaign earlier this year to build public understanding of the energy crisis. Mobilize did similar work in 2020-2022 around Covid-19 under the name COVID Comms.

The battle of ideas over the Secrecy Bill has a new player: civil society.

Not the usual civil society suspects — the SA National Editors’ Forum, the Right2Know campaign, the men in suits or the occasional former ANC leader in a cowboy hat.

No, this time we’re talking unusual suspects – the marginalised, often invisible elements of civil society who barely get a media mention: organisations representing women, the disabled, the poor and destitute, rural, homeless and landless people.

These are people and organisations which have so far been silent on the topic – either because they didn’t really care, or because they had no channel to articulate their views.

Sure, we’ve had public hearings, debates and submissions on the matter before. But this time, civil society organisations have been brought onto the playing field in a structured way as a specific part of the ANC’s strategy to reinvent, reconfigure and resubmit the legislation, and to reopen the conversation in a way which makes it appear more participative.

The strategy suggests that the legislation will be back in Parliament soon – and no longer be propelled solely by the will (and Parliamentary majority) of the ruling party. It could have additional impetus from “the will of the people”, articulated through a series of inputs from the length of breadth of civil society. All organised, managed and directed by the ANC, of course, rather than by a multiparty Parliamentary portfolio committee.

The people will have spoken. And the key question is: will they have spoken in favour of freedom of information – or in favour of even tougher action against the media, for example in the form of the media appeals tribunal?

Yesterday’s announcement by ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga of the establishment of a committee “to consider further public submissions on the Protection of State Information Bill” is, on the face of it, fairly innocuous.

“The committee will be responsible for co-ordinating public engagement with representatives from civil society, non-governmental and community-based organisations and interested individuals on the draft bill,” he said. “The committee will hold public meetings across the country to hear people’s views on the bill.”

The ANC is not the kind of organisation to hide behind “public opinion”. It has massive public support, and a huge Parliamentary majority. But on a matter as controversial as the Secrecy Bill, it will no doubt be helpful to be able to say: “But we took this matter to the people. And they have spoken”.

Consider this:

  • To date, publicly-expressed opinion (as opposed to public opinion, because no-one has really measured that) has clearly been opposed to the new legislation.
  • But that opinion has primarily been articulated by media professionals and (when they occasionally find their voice) the media owners – groupings which, in the mind of the ANC, have a distinctly vested interest.
  • Occasionally, other voices – a soundbite from a shack dweller here, a statement from an activist forum there – have joined the conversation, but in most cases as passengers rather than as drivers.
  • As a result, the conversation has not been broadened much beyond the media community.

President Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, provided some insight into the ANC’s state of mind on this during last week’s televised debate on media freedom when he said: “When you fight for freedom, you are not only fighting for freedom for yourself – you are fighting for the freedoms of others.”

What he seems to have been saying to journalists, specifically, was that their argument is seen to be driven by narrow interests – and that until they mobilised others, and articulated their views, they would be seen to be acting purely out of self-interest, rather than in the interests of “the state” or “the people”. They had failed, he appeared to be saying, to get the public to embrace their thinking and to rally in their support.

It’s an interesting perspective. In essence, Maharaj was also saying that those who do not currently have much access to information, or the means to disseminate it, may not feel as passionately about the issue as those who stand to be deprived of information. After all, if the media doesn’t give me a platform, why should I be concerned if the state takes it away?

Which makes the coming series of civil society “inputs” a potentially treacherous process for the South African media.

If civil society, in its broadest possible sense, is resourced and given a platform to have its say on media freedom and access to information, is it going to call in favour of the media institutions which it perceives to be misreporting or misrepresenting its activities?

For the media freedom campaigners, the debate could even be turned on its head: civil society organisations which have a problem with the media, and which feel its various components do not represent their interests, will have a rolling platform to say why they feel the media should not have any more freedom than it currently has. They may even need less. They may need regulation. Control.

And you can bet your TV licence fee that the public broadcaster is going to be there to help civil society articulate this.

The voices could come from constituencies which, quite rightly, feel unrepresented in or by the South African media. And they are therefore unlikely to defend its ownership, its approach to news  or its concerns about the deprivation of information.

The irony, therefore, is that a debate over state attempts to restrict the freedom of information could be flipped — and become a debate over why the media should behave in a more “responsible” way, and why it should be curtailed. Through a media appeals tribunal, for example…

So the celebrations within the media community about the ANC “backing down” on the Secrecy Bill could not only have been premature, but a complete misreading of what lies ahead.

Therein, of course, lies the opportunity: newspapers and other media can use the public hearing process to spread their own message more broadly, to situate the conversation about media freedom within a broader context of debates around the nature of our democracy, and to mobilise greater public interest in where we could be headed as a nation. They can let “the people” speak in support of the media, rather than against it.

They could also use the hearings to begin to report differently on the media-marginalised sectors of society: to reflect, with depth, the experiences, opinions, frustrations and aspirations of people who don’t have access to Twitter, fax machines or email — and whose voices are too often unheard. DM



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