South Africa's 'Secrecy Bill': Back To Apartheid?

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The bill would give the state broad authority to classify certain information as secret. Viewing or leaking such documents could lead to imprisonment. To learn what this could mean for press freedom, host Michel Martin speaks with Nic Dawes, editor of South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper, and journalist Charlene Smith.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, in the wake of a record Cyber Monday, where people of all races and backgrounds participated in the consumer side of technology, we decided to ask why the business side is still dominated by white males. We'll talk with two African American women who are in the technology field about why they think that is. That's coming up.

But first, there's been a lot of noise about a so-called secrecy bill that was passed by South Africa's National Assembly last week. The Protection of State Information Bill would give the government the power to decide what information should be classified as secret in the national interest. And anyone leaking or possessing such documents could receive jail terms of up to 25 years.

While South Africa's ruling African National Congress Party, or the ANC, favors the law, a diverse group of critics, including journalists, trade unionists and civil rights activists are worried that the law will be used to defy national interests so broadly that it will be used to suppress reports about government corruption and human rights abuses and could be used to punish whistleblowers.

And, more broadly, many leading figures in South Africa's freedom struggle are worried that this represents a slide backwards toward the kind of repressive rule that characterize the apartheid era.

We wanted to know more about this, so we've called upon Charlene Smith, who fought for the ANC as part of its underground resistance movement in the 1980s. She's now a freelance political journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and also joining us is Nic Dawes, the editor of South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both for speaking with us.

CHARLENE SMITH: Thank you, Michel.

NIC DAWES: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Nic, I'm going to start with you. You're the editor of the Mail and Guardian, as we said. It's a paper that's focused on investigative journalism. It was founded in 1985 at the height of the struggle against apartheid. Just briefly - as briefly as you can, I'd like to ask you what role you think the press played in the fight against apartheid. And what kind of reporting do you fear this law will suppress?

DAWES: Well, sections of the press, unfortunately, didn't play much of a role in the fight against apartheid. But other sections, including the Weekly Mail, as my newspaper was then known, played a critical role in exposing some of the violence, some of the repression and some of the corruption that went on under apartheid.

Unfortunately, if this new law comes into effect, some of the very important and hard-won freedoms that we now enjoy and that are now so important to the press' role in providing checks and balances in our new democracy will be greatly watered down.

MARTIN: Give an example, if you would, of a kind of reporting you fear would not be possible if this law were in effect.

DAWES: Well, just to stay within the narrowest confines of what the law provides for, it will become very, very difficult, for example, to report on misconduct within the intelligence and security services. Political meddling, which has happened in a very serious way by such powerful state agencies. It will also become more difficult to report on corruption and mismanagement in key state contracts that may be deemed to have some kind of security context. And those could range from water and electricity through to classical kind of defense applications.

MARTIN: Nic, in a minute, I'm going to ask you what you think is motivating the law and who's actually supporting it. But before we do, Charlene, I'm going to turn to you. You were very active in the ANC struggle. In 1994, just before he became president, Nelson Mandela addressed the International Press Institute's World Congress. And in his speech, he said that, quote, "a critical independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy." He said the ANC, which is his party, had nothing to fear from close scrutiny.

Charlene, what do you think has changed in the 17 years since? Has the country changed? Has the ANC changed? Is there a sense of the security threat that's changed? What's your take?

SMITH: Nadine Gordimer wrote in a British newspaper at the weekend that there are no security threats facing South Africa at the moment. There is no foreign country that is being aggressive towards us. She pointed out, and I would agree with her, that the threat that we're facing at the moment is corruption among senior officials in government and also in the private sector.

But government is where we look to to provide a model for how society should function. And I think that people have, unfortunately, become obsessed by money. It's not a new thing. It's happening all over the world. But in South Africa, they're using it to silence people.

MARTIN: Nic, what is behind this bill? What is the stated purpose of this bill? What are the supporters of it saying and those who are supporting it, what are they saying?

DAWES: Look, the bill starts off from a good place. It starts out aiming to replace a really bad 1982 law on the classification of information, which was really written at the height of apartheid's most paranoid period. So, officially, the purpose of this bill is to make a new regime that's appropriate for a constitutional democracy, to limit secrecy and to conduct classification in a way that's appropriate for an open society.

Unfortunately, that journey to the city on the hill goes off the rails very early in the bill and it seems as if the security establishment has used this reform as an opportunity, in fact, to tighten control in some key areas.

MARTIN: Charlene, you just wrote an op-ed about the bill and yours ended with the words, a dream has died. Why do you say that?

SMITH: Well, if you look, the ANC says that the Freedom Charter, which basically underpinned the anti-apartheid struggle from the 1950s. They say that the law is based on this. It said all apartheid laws and practices shall be set aside.

But the Freedom Charter also says the law shall guarantee all the right to speak, to organize, to meet together, to publish, to preach. It says all the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all by (free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands.

This law specifically goes to constraining that and it reminds me - for me, this is what I call our Poland hour, when looking back at the Second World War before Germany invaded Poland. Civil society in South Africa is sounding the alarm. We fought for these freedoms. Thousands and thousands of people died for these freedoms.

And once a state starts removing freedoms, it becomes very easy. They remove this today and that tomorrow. And I'm worried. I believe that what will happen is that they will water this down a little bit and then civil society in South Africa will jump up and down and say, we have a victory here. But they're doing exactly what the (unintelligible) did under apartheid. They come up with something that's draconian. Everyone gets terrified and then they remove a little and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. But the dangerous law is still in place, and I think that's what's going to happen here.

MARTIN: Nic. Nic, do you share that view?

DAWES: Look, some of that has happened already. They have watered it down or, in fact, improved it a lot. But I think that we are being quite vigilant about making sure that the changes that are made are not just necessary, but actually sufficient to make this law safe for democracy.

So, for example, the Right to Know campaign, which is a broad coalition of social movements, civil society organizations and media houses, has constructed a seven-point freedom test for the bill, which really sets up all the things that need to be done to get it over the bridge of being an appropriate democratic instrument. And we are certainly not going to stop pushing back against it until all of those tests are fully met.

I think Charlene's concern is real, but I think we're very alive to that risk and it's precisely why we haven't shut up, even though there have been some improvements while the bill has worked its way through parliament.

MARTIN: Mr. Dawes, finally, very briefly, if you would, I understand that Mr. Mandela is ill and is not making many public appearances, but are his thoughts about this known or is he known to have an opinion about this?

DAWES: We don't know what he thinks. I would like to think that he has the same views that he expressed throughout the 1990s on the role of the free press and the democracy and on the role of freedom of information broadly to vindicate the rights of all South Africans.

MARTIN: Nic Dawes is the editor of South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper. He was kind enough to join us from Johannesburg. Charlene Smith is a freelance political journalist who was kind enough to join us from a studio at Harvard University. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SMITH: Thank you.

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