Khaya Dlanga

Secrecy bill: Opposition to blame

2011-11-23 08:06

Khaya Dlanga

The people need to be protected from the government; it is not the government that must protect itself from the people. A government that shields itself from the people cannot be trusted.

The bill allows the government to be freer than the press. To quote Nelson Mandela, “A bad free press is preferable to a technically good, subservient one.”

Allow me to indulge by quoting myself, “Democracy demands that we always view our leaders with suspicion. In order for it to thrive, suspicion has to ever be present in order to ensure that it remains. We are not distrustful because we do not love our leaders; we are distrustful because we love democracy and freedom more.”

Thomas Jefferson put it very well when he said, “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” By standing up and speaking out, we are ensuring that we are not perverted into tyranny. If we remain silent and agree to every measure of government, we are complicit to turning it into a tyrannical government.

Again Thomas Jefferson said, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.”

The point of democracy and freedom is to ensure that the freedoms of the common man are no less than those who wield power. The powerful and those close to the powerful should not be granted greater liberties. The bill in its current form favours those in power but denying information to the common man.

Having said that, South Africa is still a democracy. It has not ceased to be one simply because of the passing of The Protection of Information Bill. The bill is not yet law. It can still be challenged and taken to the Constitutional Court even before President Jacob Zuma signs it into law. Though I do not have complete faith in our parliament, I have faith in our judiciary.

Our Constitutional Court is one of the best in the world. Many of this court's rulings are highly regarded around the globe. “The constitutional court may be a South African institution, but its reach and its audience are international. We are members of that international audience,” as a group of nine senior US law professors wrote just before the appointment of Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

The court is independent and makes up its own mind following the constitution of the land. In fact, according to former Constitutional Court Justice, Kate O’Regan, of 147 cases to do with checking government legislation, 90 have been declared constitutionally invalid. This court can stand up to the government.

It is sad of course that we have to rely on the Constitutional Court for protection and not on the lawmakers themselves. It is also embarrassing that more than half the cases taken to the ConCourt regarding government legislation have been considered constitutionally invalid.

Therefore it is presumptuous of those who say that the Constitutional Court Justices will side with the ANC simply because they were appointed by the ANC. Just because Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng felt vilified by the press during his confirmation hearings, does not mean that he is unable to apply a sound legal mind. Besides, he is not the only justice on the bench. There are 10 other judges who decide on cases.

The press have made a lot of noise about the passing of the bill. Many in the press agree that the press have not always conducted itself in the most exemplary manner, which could be one of the reasons some sections are included in the bill. The press must also realise that it is not always a victim; the press has the ability to victimise also. Having said that, the duty of the press is not to protect the rulers, rather to save them from themselves.

The presumption with most people is that the bill is all bad. The bill is largely a really good one, except when it comes to four key points which were even detailed by the Nelson Mandela Centre. And they are:

1: Harmonisation with the PAIA and the limitation of the right of access to information.
2: Changes to the offences provisions should focus on the harm caused by disclosure of classified information.
3: The public-interest override must be reformulated.
4: The provisions for automatic declassification of old-order classified information are unnecessarily narrow.

The truth is Parliament asked for submissions in opposition to the bill to made ages ago. The deadline came and went without submissions being made. Members of the opposition need to be blamed for not doing their jobs. They slept through out all of this. Are they really doing their jobs in Parliament? When they finally woke up, it was too late.

But a special mention has to go the arrogance of the ANC in this regard as well. The arrogance and the refusal to listen to the concerns of the citizens is appalling. And lastly, the press also woke up too late. Everyone who is meant to be a watchdog did nothing. Nothing. Until it was too late. Let’s take a look at ourselves here.

- Follow Khaya on Twitter.

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