Sure, the Protection of State Information Bill will be voted into an Act today. So, while many people are complaining about it, let’s look at how so very hopless it really is.
My position, as simply as I can express it, is this: I do not have a problem with governments keeping secrets but I do have a problem with them punishing others if they can't.
If a government that cannot keep secrets has an internal problem and an internal problem only. If we find out about it it is a symptom of your own staff problems.
Also, but even more absurdly, is how the ANC believes their shiny new law will be a deterrent. We live with the internet and cellphones, how is any law designed to threaten the media going to work -- the press is just one method of delivering information to people.
The biggest problem I have -- and most people -- have with the inevitable Protection of Information Act is that it will be abused. We already live in a country where thieving of public funds by appointed officials has led to one rand in every five being wasted or stolen by those entrusted to use it responsibility for the benefit of all South Africans. Once passed, how long will it be before the President Zuma's re-opening of the inquiry into the Arms Deal becames a state secret?
But, even if the ANCs Information Act slows officials from leaking the dirty news about their comrades’ corruption and mismanagement, how will this legislation stop it?
And threatening the media is not going to stop the media.
Finally, you must all realise, this is not new to many South Africans. We lived through very similar laws imposed by the National Party government. People were harassed and tormented under unjust laws from an abusive government. Except it is very different now. The problem among South Africans is The Protection of Information Act is not a great problem by itself but, more to the point, it's another marker along a terrible slippery slope that is just goes down and down. If we could trust the ANC-majority government to use its powers to the betterment of all South Africans the reaction would be much calmer but we can't trust the ANC.
They've tried plugging leaking holes before and this is just an escalation of their inability for those politicians to be honest.
The problem is the consequences: What other Bills can be rushed through Parliament under the cover of the Protection of Information Act? A one-party state, a president for life, banned opposition parties, criminalisation of critical analyses of politicians, legal definitions of illegal gatherings, detention without trial? Sure, this state of affairs won't happen immediately -- I hope it doesn't -- but these are sounding more and more plausible.
Those people who fought against the apartheid regime will start fighting again. We were once told that it was unpatriotic to have opinions against the controlling political party. We were once told that criticisms of the controlling political party were disrespectful. We were once told of terrible consequences of those who would show the controlling party was blatantly criminal. Many of us heard it all before.
Why is the Act hopeless?
Any document can be spread by anonymously seeding it through a bittorrent site. It can be stored anonymously through a public-access data storage sites. People can make bogus sockpuppet accounts with public-access email accounts like Yahoo and Google, open blog sites and forum accounts with those sockpuppet accounts and host the document's URL links there.
A link posted to any comment or post with a URL will lead many people to download a PDF. If that forum is hosted on a South African server, and the government can legally eventually force the server to close down but if the host server is in another country, no such luck.
The availability of data encryption is widespread and, if the FBI forensic department in the US is hampered by this easily available encyption software how will our law enforcement investigators handle this? Will it end with rubber hoses in far away grimy cells lit by naked 60 Watt light bulbs?
The government can try and do what Mubarak did in Egypt and shut down South Africa’s internet access but that destroys the ability of government to do its job?
The government can bitch and whine about treason and legalities all they want but this is South Africa of the 21st century. Our internet may be shitty but it’s still useful.
Acts like the Protection of Information Act are not new to us but it is new to the ANC-majority government and most of the ANC's politicians do not seem to understand that they are on the other side of the line they have drawn for themselves. This time, we have the better weapons.
Remember: Governments have the right to keep their secrets but it is not their right to punish us if they can’t.
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