South Africa’s ANC is reviving apartheid-era secrecy laws that could make exposing corruption or dodgy government deals punishable with prison, raising fears for the future of the country’s new democracy.
Opponents of the Protection of Information Bill argue it will allow dishonest officials to hide misdemeanours by making sensitive information difficult to obtain and by threatening journalists or whistleblowers with up to 25 years in jail. Even the ANC’s biggest ally, the trade union federation COSATU, has called on the former liberation movement not to rush the proposed bill into law.
“This new bill is a threat to South Africans’ democratic right to be fully informed on matters of public interest,” COSATU, which claims about 2 million members, said in statement.
“It could be abused to cover up information on corruption, the misuse of public resources and to criminalise whistleblowers who try to expose crime and corruption.” The ANC, which came to power in 1994 after decades of white-minority rule, says the law is in line with international norms and is not a bid to gag whistleblowers or the media, which makes a habit of exposing tales of state fraud and corruption.
The ANC said newspapers that want access to classified documents can go through courts, a long and drawn-out process. “The claim that the media can seek access to a classified document via the courts is laughable,” the Sunday Times, South Africa’s leading weekend newspaper, said in an editorial. “This amounts to censorship by litigation,” it continued. “In the event that the courts grant permission, (it) would occur a considerable time after it was relevant.”
A survey by market research company TNS released this week showed only 31 percent of South Africans supported the new law. Once implemented the laws would give more civil servants and state institutions sweeping powers to deem documents state secrets, raising concerns among investors about the health of state enterprises such as power utility Eskom. “The law, if and when it’s passed, will not have an immediate market impact but investors are concerned about a creeping erosion of transparency,” said Anne Fruhauf, Eurasia’s Africa analyst.
“An investor comparing emerging markets said they were more confident about the information from Brazil, which we all know has corruption and transparency issues, than they were about the information they obtain in South Africa,” she added. “If you close down the space further, you have a problem.”