By Siebe Anbeek
In South Africa, no draft law has been so fiercely contested since the end of apartheid as the Protection of State Information Bill. This 'Secrecy Bill' would let politicians keep anything they want secret. For example, why black-outs are so frequent or who paid for the president’s villa. With Hivos’ support, the 'Right 2 Know’ campaign came out in rebellion. “If politicians want to keep all manner of things secret , they must have something to hide".
Right 2 Know began as an Internet petition against what people had re-named the 'Secrecy Bill'. Its initiators, a handful of citizens from different parts of the country, were stunned when it received tens of thousands of signatures in no time. "It was the most successful South African petition drive ever," said Mark Weinberg, national coordinator of Right 2 Know. "We decided not to stop there and grew into a nationwide network of citizens and organisations. We now see this law as the symptom of an underlying problem - the increasing restriction of people’s free access to information."
Security and confidentiality
Right 2 Know is not advocating for a completely open government. They accept that secrets regarding national security or justice matters may indeed save lives. But when is a secret necessary for the security of the country or an individual? And how can an ordinary citizen tell, if everything is kept secret? According to Weinberg, politicians take full advantage of this problem. "The ‘Secrecy Bill’ purports to hold secret only documents related to national security, yet it gives the Cabinet the right to classify all government documents as such. That does leave us wondering what the Education Ministry’s documents would have to do with national security. "
Another draft law Right 2 Know is fighting is the so-called ‘Spy Bill’. "With this law in hand, the government will soon be able to monitor all our communication with other countries," says Weinberg. "And since Google and Facebook are American companies, soon all our e-mails and online postings may be read as well - under the guise of national security, of course. "
Finally, there is the National Key Points Act, an existing law that allows police to declare certain places or areas (considered by the government of vital importance to national security) "national key points', where constitutional rights are suspended and the police have much greater powers of search, seizure and arrest. Although the law dates from 1980 during the Apartheid era, recently 'key points' have been sprouting up everywhere, but often the public has no way of knowing what is declared a key point or why. Weinberg: "You can be arrested for breaking the National Key Points Act without knowing if where you were actually was a ‘key point’ at the time and without the police having to tell you what you did wrong.”
South Africans of every stripe support the Right 2 Know campaign in its fight against secrecy. Weinberg chuckles as he describes his coalition, "When we demonstrate the entire gamut of South African society joins in. We are supported by pastors and trade unionists; coloureds, whites and blacks; rich and poor; anarchists, left liberals and even racists (who are against the government because it is not all white – Ed.). This issue unites us like back in the days of Apartheid."
This is no surprise. It is already an ordeal for ordinary citizens to get information from the government. Often questions as straightforward as these go unanswered: Why was my scholarship rejected?, or Why am I still not eligible for a rental home?, or When are the drains going to be repaired in my street? In recent years, however, people’s patience has started to run out. More and more, citizens are taking to the streets to protest angrily against failing government services.
"Things are really headed the wrong way in South Africa”, says Weinberg. “In a democracy, the right to know what the government is up to is essential. Here citizens aren’t allowed to know anything about the government, but the government can find out anything it wants about the citizen. It's the world turned upside down. And while people are getting angrier, the government is looking for new ways to avoid being held accountable. If things don’t change, we can look forward to turbulent times ahead.”