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For the Info Bill to be a truly South African document, the citizens, not politicians, must feel protected, says Moshoeshoe Monare.
Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma seems to have temporarily cast aside his toxic views about the media and referred the Protection of State Information Bill back to the National Assembly.
I hope those overzealous MPs who were too keen to celebrate an assault on our fundamental freedoms will rethink their votes beyond Zuma’s narrow objection.
It doesn’t look like the president had the media in mind when he changed his mind. Nevertheless, it was honourable of him to admit that the security bill would not pass the constitutional test, considering his attitude towards the Constitutional Court. Contrary to our cynicism towards states (which is justifiably a source of our vigilance), Zuma is right to say “a state must have some secrets”.
However, our qualms with the bill are not about authentic state secrets, but how securocrats tried to use the bill to clamp down on investigative reporting, suppress the public’s right to know and to create a culture of unaccountability. For the bill to be a truly South African document, the citizens, not politicians, must feel protected.
During the paranoid dark days of apartheid, the powerful decided what citizens were entitled to know. Our constitution, which Zuma and others founded in reaction to such a secretive state, empowered citizens to hold the rulers to account for their exercise of power.
The key tenet to such accountability is an informed citizenry.
The principal factor to the constitutional exercise of such power is an open society in which the conduct of government, the state and private power must be publicly scrutinised and questioned.
The initial version of the bill meant any government official could hide unscrupulous commercial deals. Even without the bill, politicians such as Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi still employed some securocratic tactics to suppress information on arguably the most expensive renovations in South African history – Nkandla.
The second version was much better, thanks mostly to freedom of expression activists and enthusiasts, who staged protests, and some cool heads in the ruling party.
However, Mr President, we don’t seek special treatment as journalists; it is not about us or our jobs, it’s about the public’s right to know.
Mr President, you have another five-year term – that is, if your party wins next year’s elections and the National Assembly re-elects you as president.
After that term, you will become an ordinary South African citizen with lots of bodyguards. But those bodyguards will not protect you against state abuse.
Whenever another faction in the ruling party tries to use its power to violate your rights or conceal what you believe is in the public interests, this bill in its current form will make it impossible.
Mr President, I appreciate that you seem to have accepted that a good piece of legislation must survive your tenure.
You have raised a pertinent issue regarding balancing the media’s pursuit of profit and telling the South African story.
We cannot be defensive about how falling circulation and revenue figures are hurting quality journalism and threatening an open society. But this will not be remedied by such a bill.
* Moshoeshoe Monare is editor of the Sunday Independent.