Monday, November 21, 2011

South Africa's ANC under attack over 'apartheid' secrecy bill

By AFP

South Africa's ruling ANC came under fresh attack Monday as it readied to muscle a controversial secrecy bill through parliament that activists and editors say will stifle investigative journalism.

The Protection of State Information Bill will be put to vote Tuesday, carrying jail terms of up to 25 years despite fears that it is a threat to the country's hard-won democracy.

The "ANC is taking South Africa back to the suppression of free expression of apartheid," Nobel literature prize winner Nadine Gordimer told AFP.

The bill has been slammed for its harsh penalties for holding or publishing classified information, weak whistleblower protection, and the lack of a public interest defence to argue that exposure is in society's best interest.

"It's a serious threat to freedom of expression," said Nic Dawes, chair of the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) media freedom committee and editor of the watchdog weekly Mail & Guardian.

"We still think that it's a clear and present danger to press freedom even though it's a great deal better than it was when this process started. The changes that have been made are all necessary, but they're not sufficient."

South Africa's press regularly probes the murky workings of local politics, which is mired in smears of graft and kickbacks reaching to the highest level of the ANC government in power since 1994.

The National Press Club has called on people to wear black on Tuesday when parliament votes on the bill, which it has likened to a 1977 apartheid press crackdown. Several protests are also planned.

The state argues that the bill, which will replace outdated apartheid law to safeguard state secrets, is in line with international practice and that journalists are not the target.

"Contrary to the misinformation being peddled by the Press Club, this government will never, and has no intention to, ban, torture or murder journalists," ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga said.

"This bill will never be used to conceal corruption, malfeasance and related criminal acts."

The vote comes as President Jacob Zuma's spokesman Mac Maharaj has pressed charges of illegal possession of information over a Mail & Guardian article that he blocked from full publication Friday. The story alleged he had lied when questioned in a long-running arms deal corruption case.

The Right2Know campaign, which opposes the bill, says the move shows "how readily politicians will use the full might of draconian laws to protect themselves from scrutiny.

"This is exactly why South Africa needs to guard against the provisions that the Secrecy Bill seeks to dole out: the powerful already harbour too many secrets," it said.

An earlier version of the bill was reworked in marathon sessions that narrowed its scope, restricting the power to classify information.

The ANC raised optimism in September when it shelved the parliamentary debate, saying more public consultation was needed. But those meetings were only announced Friday, just days before the vote.

Parts of the bill are unlikely to stand up to a court challenge under one of the world's most rights-oriented constitutions, said University of Cape Town law expert Pierre de Vos.

"The bill is much improved from previous versions. However, I suspect some provisions may very well still be declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. This is because the bill is over-broad," De Vos told AFP.

"It infringes on the rights far more than is necessary to achieve the important government purpose."

Aside from potential legal action, hopes now rest on the bill's passage from the national assembly to the lower house of parliament, before it heads to President Jacob Zuma's desk to be signed into law.

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