Information Apartheid

CAPE TOWN – Accurate information is the oxygen that keeps democracy breathing. It is the key to ensuring a government’s probity, and to monitoring its relations with the large corporations that drive modern economies. Without accurate information, a country’s citizens are at the mercy of whatever potentially corrupt group happens to be controlling public agencies and making and enforcing the law.

Millions of South Africans suffered the consequences of a lack of information – and considerable disinformation – during the secretive apartheid era. But the country learned from that experience. South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution guarantees the right to public-sector information and, in many cases, private business information as well. South Africa adopted a freedom of information law in 2000, five years before the United Kingdom did.

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Now, however, the right to information in South Africa is in jeopardy. In late November, the parliament’s lower house, led by the majority African National Congress (ANC), overwhelmingly approved a new law – the “Protection of State Information Bill” – whose adoption would shield the country’s most-powerful political and business elites from public scrutiny. South Africa’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer has likened the bill to apartheid legislation.

Fortunately, the proposed secrecy bill has not yet been enacted. It must still be approved by the parliament’s upper house, which is expected to vote on it in early 2012. But President Jacob Zuma, who also heads the ANC, appears willing to sign the bill into law.

Of course, even liberal democracies must safeguard some information in order to protect their citizens. The South African bill’s proponents argue that it will replace the country’s obsolete, apartheid-era espionage law, and that it will allow officials to classify certain kinds of information as “secret” in order to combat national-security threats.

But the bill would also give the security agencies extensive powers to control the information flow between the government and citizens. If passed in its current form, citizens could be prosecuted merely for possessing a state secret that is already publicly available. For example, the bill’s provisions would permit the state to prosecute individuals who have downloaded a state secret from WikiLeaks. The bill’s wording also allows prosecution of civil servants, journalists, and activists who expose official wrongdoing. Furthermore, it proposes 25-year prison sentences for those convicted of exposing or possessing state secrets.

In all likelihood, the law would also prevent ordinary citizens from obtaining information about the state security apparatus that is supposedly protecting them. Concerns already exist that South Africa’s security services are insufficiently accountable to the public, and that they are rife with political infighting and extrajudicial surveillance.

Over the past 18 months, civil-society organizations, journalists, trade unionists, and students have voiced opposition to the new law and organized an alliance to oppose it. The state security minister, Siyabonga Cwele, has responded by accusing the opposition of being funded by “foreign spies,” a stance that could presage a chilling future.

South Africa has served as an important model since it successfully ended apartheid two decades ago. Both rich and poor countries in transition to democracy have sought to emulate its examples of sexual equality and socio-economic rights. Free public access to accurate, timely information is central to these rights. It sets South Africa’s post-apartheid constitutional democracy apart from the secretive regime that preceded it.

In September, South Africa, along with seven other countries, founded the “Open Government Partnership,” an initiative that aims to promote transparency, access to information, and civic engagement in public affairs. But the proposed secrecy law is utterly at odds with this initiative, and with South Africa’s reputation as a defender of freedom.

South Africa’s role as a global human-rights leader will be severely undermined if Zuma agrees to sign the secrecy bill into law, or if the constitutional court fails to strike it down. South Africa’s friends abroad should let its leaders know that they expect more from a country that once inspired the world with its fight for freedom and equality.