Mr Prez, don’t sign secrecy bill

2013-04-28 10:00

The good people of Zimbabwe did not wake up one day to find their freedom a shadow of what their once fine democracy had been celebrated for.

Democracy was unravelled slowly and one bad law after another was passed, eventually frustrating the rule of law and setting the country so far back that it had to virtually start over, from scratch.

There are other countries where freedom and democracy have been sapped in the same way – by degree. The lesson for us as we celebrate Freedom Day is to be hypervigilant every time a freedom is constrained or removed. It is the price of democracy and, we would argue, of citizenship.

The Protection of State Information Bill, passed this week by the National Assembly, is such a challenge to our vigilance. It has been the subject of negotiation for years and its purpose is to replace apartheid-era secrecy laws, which had to be scrapped.

Is the latest draft law better than previous iterations, which were truly draconian? Of course it is, because Parliament was industrious in making many changes lobbied for by civil society. This is good, because it displays a responsiveness by the state and the governing party.

But is it the best possible law that can be passed – one that respects that information is currency in a democracy? Is it a law that recognises that whistle-blowers are good citizens and if they hand over information to the police, to civil society or to the media, even if this information is classified as high security, this can be a good thing?

Troop deployments, as we’ve seen in the Central African Republic (CAR), can be made on grounds guided not only by the national interest, and is it not in the public interest to know?

Or what about when state funds are splurged on the private residences of heads of state, as we saw with the renovations to the estate of President Jacob Zuma?

In both these cases – CAR and Nkandla – the information that came to light could have been classified under the new law and its exposure may have recast whistle-blowers, journalists and activists as criminals.

The draft law’s sponsors may argue concealment of maladministration and malfeasance are excluded from protection, but that’s not how it works in real life.

The law needs an explicit public-interest defence clause and it must be vetted for its constitutionality before it is signed into law by the president.

Anything less is an intrusion on freedom and marks a fight that will end in the Constitutional Court.

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