South Africa’s new “Protection of State Information Bill” presents the greatest threat to Free Speech and the Rule of Law the country has seen since Apartheid.
The bill proposed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party aims to regulate the protection of state information. Were the bill to become law, it would allow any level of government, from federal to state to municipal, to classify any document as secret. It would also create mandatory prison sentences for whistleblowers who release the contents of so-called “secret documents.” The bill was drawn up in response to “increased threats” to South African national security.
The proposition of the bill has sparked outrage across South Africa and around the modern around, especially in journalism circles. The bill’s harshest critics call it an outright violation of Free Speech. More moderate critics contend it would be better served to include a public interest defense – a clause that protects those who disclose protected information under the justification that its disclosure is in the public’s interest.
The well-known online newspaper Mail and Guardian has become one of the bill’s biggest opponents. Since the bill’s introduction, the newspaper has been running a column that shows all the groundbreaking South African stories that would have been prosecuted in a world where the “Protection of Information Bill” was law.
The bill has also been criticized by Right2Know, the South Africa National Editors’ Forum, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, and Human Rights Watch. As well as endangering journalists, these opposition groups assert damages to governmental transparency would be irreparable. Once a ruling party loses the trust of its supporters, it is hard to earn it back.
The potential passage of the “Protection of Information Bill” incites alarm in most South Africans. It conjures up memories of a time not long ago when their government operated in total secrecy as a means of continuing the horrific injustices of Apartheid. While the ANC was instrumental in the overthrow of that archaic institution, some fear the party could be following in Apartheid’s footsteps with the passage of this bill.