The controversial Protection of Information Bill has been attracting international attention, most of it unfavourable, as it heads towards adoption in Parliament.
Newspapers in the US and Britain especially have written about the so-called “secrecy bill”, focusing on sharp criticism of it by people such as Nobel Prize for Literature winner and ANC member Nadine Gordimer.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph said Gordimer had warned that, through the bill, the ANC was taking South Africa “back to the suppression of free expression” of the apartheid era.
“Her intervention is hugely significant,” the paper said. “Gordimer was a close friend of Nelson Mandela (he read her novel Burger’s Daughter in jail in Robben Island and asked her to visit as soon as he came out) and she helped lead the fight against apartheid in her native South Africa.”
The Telegraph also quoted Gordimer as saying: “People have fought and died to gain the opportunity for a better life, which is ruined and dirtied by corruption. The corrupt practices and nepotism that they allow themselves is exposed if we have freedom of expression.”
The Voice of America said: “The measure would update apartheid-era provisions, and punish those who publish classified information with up to 25 years in jail.
“Critics say the proposed law is extreme, and have argued for a clause that allows revealing state secrets in the public interest.”
The Washington Post noted that Gordimer was one of many critics of the bill, who also included “prominent ANC members… among them a former state security minister (Ronnie Kasrils)”.
Critics “within and outside the governing party” had warned the legislation “would smother freedom of expression and make it harder to fight corruption”.
The Washington Post also noted the fears of activists that for South Africa – “known for one of the continent’s freest and most open constitutions” – to pass such legislation – “could influence other countries in the region”.
When the bill was introduced last year, along with a proposal for a media tribunal, the Wall Street Journal said the measures “could reshape South Africa’s media industry”.
As the bill got closer to being put to the vote, the newspaper said the “tensions over the media are part of a searching national debate over the political course of a key African democracy”.
It quoted Anton Harber, head of the Wits Journalism School, as warning that other African countries looked up to South Africa and the bill was a “bad example for the rest of the continent”.
The Christian Science Monitor said the ANC was “close to dramatically restricting the rights of citizens to monitor the actions of their government officials”.
It had earlier quoted Karin Karlekar, managing editor of the Freedom of the Press report for Freedom House in New York, as saying: “We see this as part of a broader trend in South Africa, and it’s very worrying.”
The Monitor said Freedom House had downgraded South Africa from “free” to “partly free”, in its Freedom of the Press rankings.
“Historically, South Africa was one of the top performers in the past 15 years, as a model for other African countries,” Karlekar said. “In South Africa, as in other countries, the media are one of the watchdogs of society in support of good governance in institutions, and to take (it) away… weakens democracy as a whole.”
The Monitor also noted: “Curiously, some African countries – notably Kenya and Nigeria – have moved in the opposite direction… enshrining the freedom of information… Nigeria enacted a Freedom of Information law.”
But it also quoted analyst Steven Friedman, director of the Democracy and Governance programme at the University of Johannesburg, as saying although the bill was “horrible”, there was “no way this legislation is going to shut down investigative journalism”.
Friedman cited the clauses “that say you can’t classify information in order to cover up government incompetence, or to protect the government from embarrassment”.
US embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said: “The US supports the freedom of the press, and the public’s right to hold governments and government officials accountable. We hope the government, civil society, activists, NGOs and media continue a dialogue to seek common ground on this critical issue.”