The apartheid regime infamously detained journalists and editors; and it routinely acted to suppress the free flow of information. Among the many promises of the 1994 elections were a truly free and open press. Sadly, in what feels like a throwback to the bad old days, the government has put forward a “secrecy bill,” which was today passed by its lower chamber. The bill would create a law instituting stiff penalties for those citizens or journalists found in possession of state secrets or classified documents, and give substantial leeway in the classification of documents by a range of government authorities.
Journalists, civil society groups, and citizens have been protesting the bill — calling it “black Tuesday,” in remembrance of “black Wednesday,” when an extreme detention of journalists took place in 1977 (puts into perspective America’s “black Friday,” later this week, which is focused on buying holiday gifts…) There is still hope that the bill could get voted down in the upper chamber, or eventually struck down by the constitutional court. But it is a grim day for freedom of information in a country that had been accumulating democratic “stock,” with now more than 17 years since the first post-apartheid election.
Given South Africa’s high level of IT infrastructure, and the capacity of whistleblowers to post information on sites such as wikileaks, the notion that the state could have much success in restricting the dissemination of such information seems pretty naive. And now the ANC has really goaded civil society and its political opponents to an even more relentless search to find information that might be worth broadcasting.