The outrageous comment by State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele in Parliament that opponents raising their concerns against the so-called Secrecy Bill are agents of foreign spies is ominous. Such statements in the highest representative structure of our democracy represents a dangerous and paranoid direction for our country. The fact that Cwele has not yet been contradicted or disciplined makes make me even more suspicious and opposed to the passage of this proposed law.
Are we drifting back to an era of apartheid-style censorship, with the new apparatchiks deciding what our thoughts and debates should be? Just as such tactics failed to silence us in the past and spawned a grassroots rebellion of alternative media, what our current leaders should realise is that the rise of the internet and the powerful tools of social media make imposing a veil of secrecy in South Africa, or the world, impossible today.
I have spent time in Tunisia this past week at a food-security conference organised by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. I interacted with leaders that drove the “Arab Spring”. The reality is that Tunisia ranked very high on the Mo Ibrahim index of development. Yet the frustration with a predatory elite around the dictatorship of Ben Ali drove a revolution that has redefined the 21st century and brought down seemingly invincible dictators.
The reason for the revolution was an anger against a secretive state that took away the voice of people – and sheltered an increasingly corrupt and intertwined economic and political elite who controlled the state. Mahmoud Bouzizi was our Hector Pieterson, and his fiery sacrifice opened the floodgates of democracy. The slogan was explicit – social justice, freedom and democracy – all essential ingredients of the right to know and express our voice. Our policymakers in our Parliament must sit up and understand how this became a powerful spark for revolution.
Listening to the State Security Minister our worst fears now appear to be justified. More than a full year ago, on 31 August 2010, the Right2Know Campaign launched as a broad-based, civil-society response to the draconian clauses of the Secrecy Bill. Accepting the need to replace apartheid-era secrecy legislation, we made seven simple demands of any law that governs information to ensure that our right to access and share information is protected. I, alongside millions of South Africans, raised my voice.
While in the past few months we have seen positive progress towards a more participatory public process, this now appears to have been ditched in favour of the heavy hand of the securocrats. Today, after months of wrangling, and despite recent promising developments in the parliamentary deliberations, the Secrecy Bill still fails the freedom test as set by the Right2Know Campaign.
The consensus position I thought we had reached was to limit secrecy to strictly-defined national security matters and that state officials had to provide justifiable reasons for such requests. But the bill being voted on this Tuesday contains only the narrowest possible protection for whistleblowers employed by the state, and none whatsoever for ordinary citizens or journalists who expose a state secret that reveals wrongdoing or corruption in the state. Although the minimum mandatory prison sentences for these offences has been removed, the maximum prison sentences are extended to up to 25 years.
The revised definition of “national security” and the notion that the state can hand out such heavy-handed jail sentences for possessing, sharing or even receiving an email containing classified information is draconian. It is completely out of proportion with the alleged breach of the law. It implies that securocrats are gaining the upper hand in the state machinery and can target any individual, organisation or media agency that the state perceives is acting contrary to its security objectives.
I also support the establishment of an independent body appointed by Parliament – and not the Minister of State Security – to review decisions about what may be made secret. The Classification Review Panel does not go far enough in providing a mechanism for public appeal against decisions of the state.
The public and civil society have made repeated calls for the bill to be withdrawn and redrafted in a transparent process that involves meaningful public consultation. This, I believe, is the only legitimate process that will rebuild the breakdown of trust between the state and society.
I, personally, have deep suspicions about the undue haste with which this bill is being steamrolled through Parliament. I call on MPs – who are entrusted with our mandate to represent the hopes and aspirations of the people – to send the bill back to the drawing board. A failure to do this reinforces a view that our Parliament is not independent of the executive and this undermines our democratic process. We cannot foster a growing alienation of the organs of civil society and the public from the highest representative of our democracy. It holds the prospect of deepening division and suspicion that will surely undermine the fabric of society.
Reports of officials in the Ministry of State Security herding the discussion by placing political pressure on MPs are unacceptable, if proved to be true. Such actions give the impression that we are not governed by representatives we elect, but by unelected apparatchiks of the state.
I urge the representatives of Parliament to resist the undue political pressure they are facing and stand up against the securocrats who are currently driving this process. We cannot return to the era of the state-security establishment determining the content and boundaries our right to freedom of expression. Many activists, freedom fighters and media leaders paid a heavy price to entrench this right as a key anchor to our Constitution, which ultimately represents the national interests of the people. Do not betray that trust. DM