South African Secrecy Law Threatens Free Press

The South African Parliament has approved the passage of the “Protection of State Information Bill,” which detractors have called the “South African Secrecy Law.” Its proponents and the ANC maintain that the law is necessary to prevent government employees from leaking important state secrets. Critics view the law as an egregious affront to a free press because it could be hand whistle blowers a draconian sentence of 25 years in prison.

South African human rights leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu have vocally come out against the passage of the law, calling it a violation of freedom and a threat to democracy. Amnesty International’s office in South Africa has called the passage of the law a “dark day for freedom.” Business leaders have even criticized the law, stating that it is likely bad for business.

Mail and Guardian "Censored" Edition

South African newspapers have already reacted with outrage. The Mail and Guardian newspaper printed an edition last week where most of the articles were blackened out in a manner similar to that under apartheid. Journalists and press freedom supporters all over South Africa have taken to the streets to protest the law.

The greatest controversy is not over the move to protect state secrets, but the lack of a public interest provision which would protect journalists and citizens from publicly revealing cases of government corruption. A whistle blower expose’ of a corrupt weapons deal, where defense contract Thyssen-Krupp made improper ANC donations to secure the sale of several large naval carriers, would be a punishable offense under the new law.

Attempts to curtail a free press to protect the shady dealings of politicians is not a new phenomenon, of course. The rise of such heavy handed policy in post-apartheid South Africa, which can proudly boast of one of the most progressive constitutions on the planet, is not only sad, but also troubling. Politicians and the powerful state elite in other Sub-Saharan countries will no doubt be emboldened by the effort.

Last year, Bingu wa Mutharika and the DPP, the president and ruling party of Malawi, introduced and passed a a consitutional amendment sharply curtailing press freedom. Section 46 of the Penal Code now states: “If the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the publication or importation of any publication would be contrary to the public interest, he may, by order published in the ‘Gazette’, prohibit the publication or importation of such publication.”

They have since routinely harassed newspaper unsympathetic to the increasingly autocratic Mutharika and had journalists arrested and beaten. DPP supporters have detained academics who speak out against the failing Malawian government. In the most recent riots this past June, DPP thugs were there not only to incite violence, but to intimidate those opposed to the present government, by brandishing machetes and beating demonstrators.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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