Scary secrecy bill in South Africa

A so-called secrecy bill was almost tabled before the South African parliament this week, and if it is eventually passed, that would be a scary step for democracy in that country. The bill proposes lengthy prison sentences for whistleblowers who do not include a “public-interest defense.” Understandably, to many South Africans, this smacks of the police state that was apartheid, and substantial protests have erupted outside the constitutional court (see M&G). So at least for now, a vote has been postponed. Hopefully it will be canned for good.

Of course, one can’t be naïve about the need for discretion. Almost anyone who has run a sizeable organization would probably agree that some conversations need to be held behind closed doors — otherwise, fear of embarrassment or retribution would keep knowledgeable and authoritative individuals from speaking up. The Wikileaks scandals shed light on the types of “frank” exchanges within the corridors of power that certainly would not have occurred if those individuals knew that their words would be made public.

But democratic government implies that the people govern, and they have a right to know about what’s going on in their own country. One of the “dilemmas” of democracy is that such freedoms can sometimes hamstring effective government action, but that’s a cost people are willing to bear. And virtually all “whistleblowing” is in the public’s interest, which makes the bill itself largely nonsensical.

At the moment, South Africa’s press still remains vibrant and information circulates freely in that country. But in recent years, the state has launched several attacks with loose charges of treason against various journalists and news outlets. The ANC has not liked media spotlights on corrupt practices and the lavish lifestyles of some officials. When it comes to policy, it would certainly be easier to make decisions about environmental, security, and other interests without public scrutiny. But ugly revelations from years of post-apartheid “truth and reconciliation” should be a reminder of what can go wrong when state power goes unchecked.

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