The Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), the African Regional Organisation of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), condemns in the strongest terms possible the South Africa’s proposed Protection of Information Bill (the Secrecy Law), terming it a foremost threat to freedom of information and freedom of expression in South Africa.
Protection of Information Bill which is currently before the South African parliament after being presented by the minister of state security is based on broadly defined and severely worded clauses of secrecy, national security and national interest. South African journalists have objected to the bill as a violation to freedom of expression. Journalists are also opposed to the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal.
“The bill in its present shape is deplorable and a travesty to freedom of the press, freedom of expression and the right of the people to access government information. Taking this bill into further discussions will mean giving it an essence that it does not deserve. It is against the values of democracy and human rights, and should not get its way into being passed by country’s parliament. We call upon the South African government to shelve this draconian bill,” said Omar Faruk Osman, FAJ President.
The contentious Bill states that information in the hands of government and other authorities should be classified and thus is being seen by the journalists’ community as a mechanism for denying the public the right to access this information in the pretext of “national security” or “national interest”. Officials have to check if releasing information might be harmful to free trade, democracy, economic growth, a stable monetary system, pursuit for justice, the survival of the state or the advancement of the public good, according to the proposed Bill. The officials are also required, if the bill is passed, to state if the information is ‘confidential’, ‘secret’ or ‘top secret’.
“Media’s ability to provide quality information and report on issues of public importance will be extremely undermined by this Bill,” Omar Faruk added.
“The clauses in this Bill are perfectly not in compliance with the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to information. It promotes a culture of secrecy and erodes democratic gains that South Africa has been enjoying,” added Omar Faruk.
FAJ believes that if this dangerous bill is passed into law, it will eliminate scrutiny of government organs, and promote lack of transparency and accountability. “The Watchdog role of journalism in the country will be eradicated and the right-to-know of the citizens will be violated” he stated.
South Africa passed the Promotion of Access to Information Act on 2 February 2000. What the new Bill means is that journalists could face more time in jail than officials who deliberately conceal public information.
FAJ particularly calls on President Jacob Zuma, the Africa National Congress party and progressive parliamentarians to veto this high-handed Bill that aims at promoting the culture of deep secrecy.
“South African government has a duty to protect and promote openness. The repressive Bill will weaken the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and access to information, and the access to information Act. We insist that a radical review of the Bill be made with appropriate consultations with the media community so that legitimate concerns of journalists can be taken into account,” Omar stated.
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The FAJ represents over 50,000 journalists in 36 in Africa