John Milton, the renowned 17th century English poet, who wrote passionately about the freedom of speech.

Johannesburg - All South Africans should know that the Constitution guarantees them free speech. They should understand it is the cornerstone of democracy. They should know the difference between our democracy and the North Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban versions.

Unfortunately, most do not. Even our MPs seemingly do not, judging by the overwhelming vote for the Protection of State Information Bill.

National security is the excuse. It always has been. State security is a wonderful catch-all. It justifies anything. Remember 90-day detention without trial? That was justified on national security grounds. The draconian Terrorism Act? That too was justified in the name of national security.

Have we forgotten what it was like before 1994? Maybe the MPs have. Maybe those in favour of the Bill would vote for anything as long as the party “deployed” them to Parliament. But there is no excuse for our captains of industry.

After some protests, so muted to be inaudible, they seem to have accepted it – to their shame. Their timidity may yet haunt them, and their shareholders. Want to challenge a tender process? Sorry, you cannot it is a state secret. Want to check the company register? Sorry, that company’s business is a state secret.

Everywhere in the world where freedom of speech is curtailed it has given free rein to bent politicians and unelected-bureaucrats to feather their nests at the expense of the taxpaying citizens. It leads to crony capitalism, not the kind of economy that attracts foreign investors.

The consequences are serious. It is no exaggeration to say freedom of speech is the cornerstone of all our guaranteed democratic freedoms. To water down this fundamental freedom, even in the name of state security, is to start a slow and pernicious slide towards general intolerance and ultimately, tyranny.

This slide is already in evidence outside the realm of traditional politics. Consider the abuse hurled at those who question man-made global warming theory. Notice how safety concerns are used to interfere with individual choice. Watch how the anti-smoking lobby seeks to tell us what to do in our own homes.

All are examples of intolerance. All are opponents of individual freedom of speech.

The Protection of State Information Bill passed by Parliament last year only has two steps to become law. The last hope will then be an appeal to the Constitutional Court, a judgment that the Bill in unconstitutional and a victory for the independence of the judiciary.

As only 88 members voted against the Bill, it suggests that the 225 in favour had not a clue about the significance of the Constitutional right to Freedom of Expression, or the importance of the Bill of Rights itself.

Even the drafting of this Bill suggests this ignorance runs deep. Indeed, the initial text showed a singular lack of care (30 typographical and grammatical errors).

If the vote in favour is an indictment of government MPs and State bureaucrats, they are not alone in their ignorance. How many captains of industry, church leaders, senior managers, entrepreneurs, teachers and lecturers, care about our right to free speech?

Yet freedom of speech is the cornerstone of honest business and all the other freedoms on which business depends. Without free speech, what price free markets, the law of contract? What price our other Bill of Rights freedoms if freedom of speech were to wither and die?

As for the almost silent response of our universities, they should ask, what price academic freedom without free speech?

Freedom of expression is not a new invention. It is not a “White” concept. Pre-colonial African societies took as a given the right to speak your mind. Nor is freedom of speech a tool of the capitalist class.

John Milton, the renowned 17th century English poet, wrote passionately, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” A century later, the American revolutionaries enshrined freedom of speech in a Bill of Rights. The French revolutionaries did the same in their Declaration of the Rights of Man.

And in case the Americans and French can be written off as incorrigibly bourgeois, the UN endorsement of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 listed freedom of speech as fundamental to human freedom and democracy.

If President Jacob Zuma signs the Protection of State Information Bill, it will mark the start of a slow strangulation of free speech. It will become an excuse to cover up corruption, keep the public in ignorance of government mistakes, and used to intimidate journalists.

Good journalists know that without freedom of speech their craft is a pale shadow of what it should be.

Journalists have no more powers than ordinary citizens. Restrict their right to free speech; censor what they can and cannot write; and the restriction applies to all citizens.

As Professor Anthea Garman of Rhodes University has noted: “Freedom for the media is a freedom on behalf of the public…. (It) must never become a disconnected freedom in its own right; it must always work on behalf of the people and for their right to speak in the public domain.”

Professor Guy Berger of the same institution has said: “We have seen repeatedly throughout the world, that censorship and control of information serves the interest of a privileged few; the rule of law is negatively affected, human rights ignored and impunity and corruption unchecked.

“In contrast, a free, diverse, and responsible media promotes transparency and accountability, informs public debate, and helps to ensure governments address the concerns and aspirations of all citizens.”

Freedom of speech has always been the target of those who would control others. Both communists and fascists are violently against any challenge to their opinions, for example.

At bottom freedom of speech is about truth – finding it, sharing it, seeking it, and defending it. Every citizen should understand that without this freedom, there is no liberty and no true democracy.