The secrecy bill: A dream dies

Charlene Smith says SA is on verge of returning to a frightening past

Cambridge, MA - As an apartheid-era South African political journalist I once refused to reveal my sources after writing an exposé of corrupt practices by the Minister of Agriculture. A judge threatened to jail me for 18 months in terms of section 205 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

I refused to budge and ultimately Judge Fritz Eloff declined to send me to jail, but if that happened in South Africa now, following Tuesday's passing of the Protection of State Information Bill, I could face 25 years imprisonment. Two years short of what Nelson Mandela served.

Without brave investigative journalists - some of who did go to jail under apartheid and many of whom were arrested often (myself included), and some of whom were killed covering conflict - apartheid's excesses could never have been revealed. The South African media showed why apartheid needed to go.

As an example, in 1990, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sheena Duncan of the Black Sash and others approached me to begin the first investigations into death squads. They had formed an organization called the Independent Board of Inquiry into Informal Repression. Two weeks later we had the miracle of an askari (death squad assassin) spilling the beans in a statement to us. I had to investigate it. Lawyers checked every finding and directed me to find more. We did not know if the askari was a security police agent sowing disinformation.

Within three months we began giving proven leads to newspapers, some of which were bombed or saw editors and journalists arrested for writing articles, and conducting further investigations. That information formed the seedbed of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Tutu in a democratic South Africa.

After less than a year I gave up my job at the IBIIR because my phones were tapped, mail intercepted, tires slashed, and prowlers were often in my garden. The person who took over the job, Bheki Mlangeni, a young lawyer had his head blown off when he opened a parcel with a tape recorder in it, put the enclosed headphones over his ears and pushed the "play" button. The parcel, originally intended for Dirk Coetzee, had been sent by Vlakplaas operatives.

The minute a state closes the doors on freedom of expression; when it arrests journalists and terrorizes whistleblowers, it permits the temptation of excess, and more laws to curb freedoms. No just state ever acts against those who speak out. Truths are uncomfortable, but they allow reformation and progress.

Even the path of this law carries warnings. Communist leader Ronnie Kasrils, who has since denounced it, first introduced it in 2008. State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, whose then wife was convicted of involvement in an international cocaine smuggling ring in May, reintroduced it. He has referred to critics of this law, including Mr. Kasrils who previously occupied the same ministerial position, as proxies of ‘foreign spies.'

The new law allows the state to classify documents as secret in "the national interest" - which has a broad definition. Citizens and journalists found in possession of such documents would be treated as ‘foreign spies' and could face up to 25 years in jail. There is no defence of ‘acting in the public interest.' Critics claim it could repress the reporting of corruption and human rights abuses.

Thousands of South Africans demonstrated against the bill including Nobel laureates, Tutu and Nadine Gordimer. South Africa's 1996 Constitution and Bill of Rights protect freedom of the press but this law brought under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, ignores it. Zuma, a polygamist who was acquitted of rape shortly before being elected has become significantly wealthy since apartheid's end. He has oft been the target of media investigations.

Recently he suspended the second police commissioner in a row for alleged corruption; the one before him was charged with corruption, racketeering, murder, human trafficking and drug smuggling. Newspapers exposed some of these activities.

Last week Zuma's spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, a former government minister under Nelson Mandela, filed a lawsuit against the Mail & Guardian, a newspaper with a proud anti-apartheid history for asking questions, using leaked government documents, about his explanations of suspicious payments to his wife in the context of a lucrative credit card driver's license tender.

The new law could silence reporting of protests against deepening inequity. Harsh police action, sometimes resulting in death has been seen during some of these protests. The divide between rich and poor is now more acute than during apartheid.

South Africa, dubbed the rainbow nation by a jubilant Tutu after the release of Nelson Mandela, has in less than two decades slipped from being a model of human rights tolerance to a country at risk of deepening repression.

Ratings agency Moody's citing increasing government interference in Africa's largest economy has downgraded it. Transparency International ranked it 38th in the world in terms of perceived corruption in 2001 to 54th in 2010.

On Tuesday when I read, "229 MPs voted in favor of the protection of state information bill, with 107 no votes and 2 abstentions," I cried. A dream has died.

* Charlene Smith is an award-winning political journalist who lives and works in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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