South Africa's Parliament has passed a highly controversial state information bill that gives a limited number of government officials the authority to classify information and imposes harsh penalties on those who possess or distribute state secrets. Critics say it will allow officials to cover up corruption and greatly restrict the flow of information.
Outside Parliament on Tuesday, hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk dressed in black. Many had tape over their mouths and held signs that said, "No To Secrecy" and "Keep The Press Free." They were protesting the new Protection of State Information Bill – or, as they call it, the Secrecy Bill.
"The government, which is increasingly becoming authoritarian, will use that bill to crush dissent, and to crush access to information, and to try to muzzle the media in particular," said Zackie Achmat, a political activist and founder of the Social Justice Coalition, an organization that campaigns for greater access to information.
The bill created a firestorm of controversy since it was introduced to Parliament last year. The version passed Tuesday criminalizes both the leaking of state secrets and the possession of those secrets. It even makes it a crime to harbor someone in possession of classified information, and it imposes harsh penalties for the most serious offenses, including up to 25 years in prison.
Critics say the bill will have a chilling effect on the media and on the public's access to information. That's partly because it does not include meaningful whistleblower protections. But Minister of State Information Siyabonga Cwele says there is no international precedent for whistleblower protections in such an important national security bill.
"We have looked at the international best practices, and there is no country that follows such a reckless practice," Cwele said. "It has been persistently rejected in the USA over a long period of time."
Murray Hunter, the director of Right 2 Know, a campaign established to fight the bill, says many fear the law will be used to cover up corruption, including an arms deal involving President Jacob Zuma and key members of the African National Congress. Zuma recently appointed a national commission to investigate the arms deal, and its findings could threaten his presidency.
"There's a real fear that something like the secrecy bill is exactly what's needed to shut that whole process off from public scrutiny and ensure that those who profited form the international arms trade don't face the music," Hunter said.
Zuma and Cwele have repeatedly denied that the bill will be used to cover up corruption and insist it is essential to protect South Africa from foreign spies. But some ANC supporters have grown critical of the ruling political party. They've accused the ANC of using its majority to force a bill through Parliament without public support. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, a powerful political player and long-time ANC ally, has now joined with religious leaders, universities and the media in opposition to the ANC and the bill.
Hunter says it's rare that so many disparate groups have united around a single issue — in this case, transparency.
"Because everyone understands that secrecy is a bad thing, and everyone understands how that secrecy is undermining them in some way or another," he said.
Having passed the National Assembly, the bill will now go to provincial governments for review. It is expected to be signed into law by Zuma next year. Opposition parties say the bill is unconstitutional, and plan to challenge it in court as soon as it becomes law.