Last Updated: Nov 26, 2011
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This month the S. African Parliament forwarded a wide sweeping law that would essentially make it impossible to gain access to information held by the government, or other persons, that the government deems to be sensitive or classified in nature. Now, we agree that some information is not meant for the public, things like troop movements, defense strategies, etc. But, this law would allow government officials to classify information without reasoning or accountability.
This law challenges their new found freedoms guaranteed in their constitution, and provides for severe penalties, up to 25 years in prison, if a journalist or reporter releases this “Classified” information. The law doesn’t outline methods for removal of the classifications, nor does it specify what type of information could be potentially classified. Many journalists are calling the law a return to the Apartheid they fought so hard against.
Now that the legislation has passed their lower house, it is due to go to the floor of their National Council of Provinces, and is expected to pass there despite the unpopularity of the law. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu has made statements opposing the law, calling it an “insult to the African Nation,” and even Nelson Mandella had a lot to say on the subject. The Human rights organization, Freedom House, a global freedom rating organization, has downgraded their outlook on the country, taking the countries status from “Free” to “Partially Free.”
In the past, when the media has posed a threat to politicians, this law and another one establishing a “Media Tribunal” has come out of the closet to pose a threat to journalists and reporters that publish articles that are considered harmful. This time it is presumed that the recent fiasco surrounding President Jacob Zuma spurred the lawmakers to dust this old legislation off, and propose it for reconsideration.
Opposition to the laws are saying that journalists would have to either choose to not do the investigative reporting that is their job, or risk imprisonment. They are also claiming that officials would be allowed to declare any information they wish as sensitive, or classified, without any justification or explanations. Looking at the President Zuma cases, this would have been a handy law to have around…illegal activities could potentially be hidden from the public with impunity.
One publication’s senior editor, Nic Dawes, of The Mail and Guardian, said of the laws that, “journalists will be required to choose between what their vocation requires them to do on one hand, or avoiding the very real possibility of jail sentences of up to 25 years.” He also expressed his disappointment in the fact that the politicians have ignored the public cries of outrage. And it truly would be sad for such a newly reformed free nation to start so early on the path that the U.S. legislative body has taken…where he who has the most money wins.