Protesters taped their mouths shut to oppose the Protection of Information Bill. (Imke van Heerden)
Protesters taped their mouths shut to oppose the Protection of Information Bill. (Imke van Heerden)

South Africans end week of “secrecy bill” protests

On Wednesday, just before South African lawmakers were scheduled to debate amendments to the controversial Protection of Information Bill, thousands of protesters marched to the gates of Parliament in Cape Town to oppose the measure, which they called an “apartheid-style secrecy bill.” The marchers represented a broad coalition of media, academia, trade unions and civil society groups.

In Durban, more than three hundred protesters also demonstrated against the bill, concluding a week of protests, pickets and public meetings launched on South Africa’s National Day of Freedom.

The Protection of Information Bill includes jail sentences of up to 25 years for anyone, including journalists, who obtain leaked government information. It also gives government officials unchecked power to classify information on the basis of vaguely-defined national interests. Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele has defended the bill as a necessary national security tool, describing secrecy as “the oil that lubricates our democracy.” He has resisted pressure to make substantive amendments to the bill, such as independent oversight for classification and the inclusion of public interest as a defense for journalists, drawing criticism from campaigners.

On Wednesday, over 10,000 protesters, organized under the umbrella of the Right2Know Campaign (R2K) and the Treatment Action Campaign, chanted slogans including “Keep the press free.” They handed legislators a memorandum against the bill, which they said would create a “society of secrets” and undermine the exposure of public corruption.

The South African government has proposed various measures that many believe are intended to restrict the press. This legislative clampdown follows critical coverage of the performance of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The pending Freedom From Harassment Bill contains provisions that would criminalize the daily activities of investigative journalists including calling, emailing and texting news sources or subjects, according to legal experts. Activists are also campaigning against the ANC’s proposal to have parliament set up a Media Appeals Tribunal to regulate journalists’ operations and activities.