The Right2Know campaigners march on Parliament. Photo: Gareth Smith

With the controversial Protection of State Information Bill due to be considered in Parliament on Tuesday, civil society rallied to fight it in Cape Town on Saturday.

Hundreds of people, including at least one former ANC cabinet minister, the premier of the Western Cape, the mayor of Cape Town, academics and journalists, marched on Parliament to protest against the bill, which has harsh penalties. These include a 25-year jail sentence for possession and disclosure of material classified secret.

Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils told the crowd outside Parliament: “This all-embracing secrecy bill… we smell and suspect is not about the real secrets that must be defended, but it’s to protect those silly leaders who have egg on their face, who have been exposed by the media for doing foolish and embarrassing things.”

These things included “misusing and abusing” tenders and contracts as well as taxpayers’ money.

Activists and editors fear the bill will hinder investigations into wrongdoing and affect media reporting.

Kasrils said he took part in the march as his concern for the country transcended his loyalty to the ANC.

“When your mother or father, brother or sister, your family, are doing the wrong thing… you raise your voice and say: ‘That is wrong, it must not be done’,” he said.

The march was organised by the Right2Know campaign and held on a weekend when hundreds of journalists, bloggers, government officials, civil servants and members of non-governmental organisations had converged on Cape Town for a large number of media conferences.

In the midst of the concern about the bill, President Jacob Zuma told the Rhodes University Highway Africa conference, being held at the CTICC, that South Africa valued media freedom and freedom of expression, and reiterated that this was enshrined in the constitution.

Welcoming editors and delegates in a video message, Zuma said the issues being discussed were not just relevant to the media industry, but also to those in the government.

“Many freedom fighters in our country fought long and hard for media freedom, and they will continue to defend it because a free media is a cornerstone of any democracy.”

Not content with the president’s word, the marchers, who included many of the delegates at the various conferences, demanded the inclusion in the bill of a public interest defence clause. This would enable a whistleblower or a journalist to defend themselves against being prosecuted under the act if their publication of what was considered an official secret could be shown to have been in the public interest.

No one was at Parliament to accept the marchers’ memorandum, but the organisers were quick to improvise, symbolically handing it instead to a life-sized puppet of Zuma.

Cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro said: “Every single person in this country is a victim of this secrecy bill, not just an elite media. We did not fight for a second-class revolution, we fought for a revolution we can believe in.”

Treatment Action Campaign founder Zackie Achmat said he did not believe that anyone leaking information about corruption should be sent to jail.

“That is what the apartheid government would have done,” he said, adding that if a law was unjust, “the people must break it”.

UCT vice chancellor Max Price said the march was about demanding three things – a public information clause which would recognise the people’s right to information that affected them, the ability to appeal the classification of documents in a court, and that the bill be tested by the Constitutional Court before it is passed into law.

National co-ordinator of the Right2Know campaign, Murray Hunter, said it had marched on Parliament a year ago demanding that seven points of the bill be changed. While some points had been, the bill “still fails the freedom test” because it failed to protect South Africans.

On Friday the South African National Editors forum held their annual general meeting, and afterwards issued a statement:

“Sanef will continue to oppose the enactment of the bill and will take legal action, if necessary, to ensure that it ultimately complies with the constitutional principles of free speech and open democracy.”

Organisers of a petition against the bill said they had collected 17 000 signatures in 24 hours. - Weekend Argus