By Sarah Duff
We moan a lot that Parliament is just a ‘rubber stamp’ and that it has little influence over the way power is wielded in our country. We also tend to write off MPs, arguing that they’re fat cats who exploit their ample travel and living allowances, rather than representing the South Africans who voted them into power in the first place.
Although there is (some) truth in these stereotypes, we need to take Parliament and our MPs seriously. We pay their salaries and, more importantly, what goes on in Parliament has an impact on all of us. Not only do we all have a right to visit Parliament and monitor MPs at work – yes, it’s true, all you need is to pitch up with your ID book – but in their committees and in the House of Assembly, MPs create legislation which determines nearly every aspect of our lives: how we go to school; use the internet; drive our cars; farm the land; and tend the sick.
This means that when there’s a bad piece of legislation before Parliament, we have the opportunity and even the duty to make our opposition to it known. And at the moment, a specially-constituted ad hoc committee is about to finish its work on the Protection of Information Bill which, if passed in its current form, would allow senior officials in any government department, parastatal, or agency to classify any information which they deem to be ‘valuable’ and in the ‘national interest’.
Thanks to a public outcry, the Bill now protects whistleblowers – employees who highlight corruption or malpractice – who leak classified documents, but journalists, and in some cases officials, caught handling classified information could face up to 25 years imprisonment.
What does this mean for you and me? It means that the Directors of the Johannesburg Zoo and the Algoa Bus Company have the power to classify information pertaining to the operations of those two government agencies. It means that over a thousand organisations may classify information. It means that government officials get to decide what’s ‘valuable information’ and what’s in the ‘national interest’.
This Bill means that your and my right to access government information – a right enshrined in Section 32 of our constitution – will be fundamentally compromised. In South Africa, we have a right to know. If enacted, this legislation will take away your and my right to know. We’ll be plunged into an information black hole.
So say for instance there’s a government hospital which isn’t terribly well run. Its neonatal unit is particularly incompetent, and over a period of time, a number of premature babies die of preventable diseases and infections. Parents become suspicious, and they ask for an investigation. The head of the hospital decides to classify all the documents which point to the hospital’s – and his – culpability, but a nurse leaks this information to a journalist, who publishes it in a local newspaper.
As we stand now, the heroic whistle blowing nurse, journalist, and newspaper are protected by the law – and it would be impossible for the head of the hospital to classify that information. But if the Protection of Information Bill were to become law, heads of hospitals would be able classify information. And journalists publishing classified information could be jailed for up to twenty-five years. This means that no-one would discover what went on in that hospital. There would be no justice for those babies and their parents.
We need information to be able to hold our government to account, and this Secrecy Bill tries to put a stop to that.
Things have now reached a critical phase. The Parliamentary committee responsible for the Secrecy Bill is finalising the legislation, even though it’s clear that many MPs don’t agree with it. (It seems that ANC MPs have decided to push the Bill through, regardless of concerns raised by civil society and the opposition.) The committee’s last meeting will be on 24 June, and then the Bill will be sent to the House of Assembly to be voted on.
So what can you do? The Right2Know Campaign has been working against the Secrecy Bill since last year. We’ve managed to achieve some significant victories, but we really, really need your help. Sign our petition, and come to our events. On 3 June we’ll be holding an information meeting at Idasa in Cape Town at 6pm – please come if you can! We’re organising a national week of action between 20 and 24 June. Keep an eye on our website , Facebook page, and Twitter feed for details. You can also email the Minister for State Security, Siyabonga Cwele, to tell him why you don’t support the Bill.
Last year, Mr Cwele said to Parliament that ‘secrecy is the oil which lubricates our democracy’. No it’s not, Mr Minister. If the anti-apartheid movement taught us anything, it’s that freedom and openness breathe life into democracy. We cannot flourish in darkness.