Secrecy laws planned for South Africa fundamentally threaten free speech and investigative journalism, and could have a chilling effect on the rest of Africa, a united front of human rights lawyers, newspaper editors and Nobel prize-winning writers have warned in interviews.
The protection of state information bill — nicknamed the “secrecy bill” — envisages draconian penalties of up to 25 years in prison for whistleblowers and journalists who possess, leak or publish state secrets. It has been described as the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid in 1994 to undermine South Africa’s democracy.
Opponents of the bill fear that, with South Africa often regarded as a beacon of democracy and freedom on the continent, it could be used as an excuse by repressive African regimes for renewed crackdowns on journalists and activists.
Among those to attack the proposed legislation is J.M. Coetzee, a Nobel laureate and double Booker prizewinner, making a rare public intervention.
“The legislation is transparently intended to make life difficult for pesky investigative journalists, and generally to save incompetent or corrupt bureaucrats from being embarrassed,” Coetzee said in an e-mail. “Its sponsors have very likely been emboldened by the push that has taken place all over the Western world since 2001 to erect a wall of secrecy around the more dubious actions of the state, and to make it a crime to breach that wall.”
Coetzee joins fellow Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer in calling global attention to measures they believe are calculated to help the government conceal evidence of corruption.
Gordimer, whose books were banned under white minority rule, said: “It is quite obvious why this bill has come about — the government is making no attempt to hide the truth that its intention is to aid the cover-up of corruption.”
“I wrote during the apartheid regime and I fought against the apartheid regime. Three of my books were banned. What we are doing now is going back to apartheid censorship under a new guise,” she said.
Today, South Africa boasts arguably the freest press in Africa, with no shortage of revelations about shady deals or satirical cartoons lampooning politicians’ foibles. Freedom of expression has been protected under the constitution. But opponents of the bill believe the gains of the last 18 years are under threat and warn that the rest of the continent is watching.
Andrew Feinstein, a former African National Congress (ANC) member of parliament whose exposure of a corrupt multibillion-pound arms deal might have resulted in his prosecution under the new laws, said: “I think for many countries in Africa the comparison is always made with South Africa as this bright shining star of democracy. If that comparison no longer holds, it lets a lot of other countries off the hook.”
Nic Dawes, editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, said: “We’re already hearing from people elsewhere on the continent that their politicians and government officials are saying to them: ‘You see, they’re even doing this in South Africa, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing it here.’ That’s one of the most dangerous things about the bill: the excuse it will give to other countries elsewhere in the region, that had been opening up, to begin to tip in the other direction. It’s really very disturbing.”