So South African MPs have finally approved the controversial and highly debated state of information bill after three years of a pull and push battle. The bill was voted in favour by 189 votes and 74 against with one abstention, in parliament on Thursday.
State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele assured MPs and the media that the legislation has been ‘significantly’ altered, this as the bill had in the past received criticism from civil society groups and other members of parliament. He further went on to say “the bill will help strengthen democracy while balancing transparency in the country.”
According to an article published by the Mail and Guardian, Cwele expressed that he was confident that the latest version of the bill has addressed the concerns of the people. According to parliament the bill’s key objective is to provide the protection of certain state information from alteration, loss, destruction or unlawful disclosure; to regulate the manner in which information is to be protected and repeal the Protection of Information Act 1982. “The bill will prevent the ever present over-classification of information of state officials by limiting the power to classify.”
Now that the implementation of the bill is knocking on the doors of the law and simply waiting authorisation of the president to be sealed by his signature, what does that mean for the freedom of expression of the media in the country? A free media is one of the many fruits that came with democracy; this means the media has a responsibility to act as gatekeepers in the public interest. Every aspect of the media industry – from regulation, ownership, distribution, and content – is considered to be in the public’s interest; this will now prove to be a bigger challenge than it was already.
Critics of the bill (most notably led by civil society coalition called the Right2Know campaign) emphasise the need for a public interest defence as frustrations mount on penalty clauses that stipulate to choke off investigative journalism and other forms of whistle blowing by threats of jail time. Meaning journalists and those who would ever wish to obtain or communicate information deemed classified, should have sheer courage, although this is highly unlikely as few will want to risk prosecution or arrest as penalty.
A mutual concern for those opposing the bill is that it will be used as a smoke screen to conceal the state’s devilry and threaten reporters with jail time. The nation cannot sit back and stomach such unconstitutional legislation that sought to outlaw whistle blowing and might in time to come choke off investigative journalism.