Cape Town. 111122. Lekota. Members of the opposition parties speak out against the Bill. Parlimentary vote in the National Assembly on the Secrecy Bill. Photo by Michael Walker

The Protection of State Information Bill’s successful passage through the National Assembly – with 229 votes in favour, 107 against and two abstentions – has sparked condemnation by opposition parties, civil society groups and press freedom watchdogs at home and abroad.

SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) chairman Mondli Makhanya said shortly after the vote that this was a “sad and tragic day”.

“We had hoped that ANC MPs’ consciences would get the better of them,” he said.

“(Instead), short-termism and narrow-mindedness triumphed over reason and logic. It is a huge step backwards.”

Makhanya said he hoped the members of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) – the bill’s next destination – would “see the light” and amend or reject it.

“The battle is not over yet. We will take it forward with other sectors of society. We will be with them in the trenches to fight against this pernicious law.”

Referring to the appeal Sanef had made earlier to President Jacob Zuma to reject the bill, Makhanya said “we hope he will see reason”.

In the build-up to the vote on Tuesday, hundreds of citizens gathered outside the parliamentary precinct to protest against the bill.

They were dressed mostly in black, the day of voting having been dubbed “Black Tuesday” in a nod to the apartheid regime’s infamous 1977 media crackdown that became known as “Black Wednesday”.

National Press Club chairman Yusuf Abramjee said the battle against the bill was not over.

“If the government does not give in, we’ll have Black Monday, Black Wednesday, Black Thursday and Black Friday,” he warned.

The leader of the DA and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, who, like most members of her party, was dressed in black, followed proceedings from the public gallery.

She said it had been “a bad day”, but that the vote would not be the end of the road.

Zille noted that, with the support of at least one third of the members of the National Assembly, the House could refer the bill directly to the Constitutional Court once Zuma had signed it into law.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who also leads the SACP, dismissed the black-clad protesters as nothing more than “a minority who are cynical about us”.

“It is titillating, white, suburban politics,” the minister said.

He apparently ignored that Treatment Action Campaign leader Zachie Achmat was among those who spoke out against the bill, as well as that protesters had the support of the ANC’s political ally Cosatu.

Referring to comments made in the House by Leader of the Opposition Lindiwe Mazibuko that the passing of the bill was a betrayal of the ANC’s founding values, Nzimande said: “It is simply not true.

“Our view as the SACP is that no state anywhere in the world does not have such legislation, because (the absence of such a law) is a danger to the state. We opposed earlier versions of the bill, but much of our concerns have been addressed.”

On the question of a public interest defence, Nzimande said: “The public interest? Who decides? The editor decides. That’s really out of order. The media are not running an honest campaign. It is dishonest. The media are so one-sided.”

Before the vote, Amnesty International issued a statement urging Parliament to “quash the draconian secrecy bill”.

“This fatally flawed bill, which is totally at odds with the South African constitution, takes us right back to the apartheid-era restrictions on free speech,” said Noel Kutuwa, Amnesty’s deputy director for Africa.

“If the government pushes the bill through, journalists and whistle-blowers could potentially be branded as criminals.

“If they were to be imprisoned under this law, Amnesty International would regard them as prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the bill would “unacceptably curtail the right to access information and freedom of expression, which are the foundation of a democratic society”.

“While there may be extraordinary situations where the danger to national security could outweigh the public’s interest in receiving official information, international legal interpretation and the jurisprudence of democratic societies tend to view such situations restrictively, in view of the chilling effect censorship and punishment have on freedom of speech.”

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird said the passing of the bill was bad for the country and worse for its international reputation.

“Each time the bill is endorsed by national figures, the culture of secrecy is deepened (at national, provincial and local government level),” he said.

Bird noted that Zuma had become one of the first signatories earlier this year to the Global Open Government Initiative and, in doing so, had said open government in South Africa was premised on “our progressive and transformative constitution which enshrines a Bill of Rights and the principles of open governance”.

“We challenge the president and the South African government to live up to his words and the spirit of our constitution and to fight the growing culture of secrecy,” said Bird.

The ANC’s chief whip, Mathole Motshekga, whose job includes making sure the party’s MPs stick to the script and vote according to its position on legislation, issued a statement after the vote saying the caucus “welcomes” the bill’s passage.

Motshekga said the bill would “significantly reduce the volume of information classified” while strengthening the protection of state information “that truly requires protection”.

“The office of the ANC chief whip is gravely concerned that the media have been less than honest in their reports on the bill,” Motshekga said.

“While we respect the position of the media on this bill, and their campaign against it, we still expect the media to remain objective.

“The bill is necessary and can stand constitutional muster as it is prima facie a reasonable and justifiable limitation of the right to freedom of expression.

“(It) is purposed to protect the national interest, which includes protection of life, protection of the interest of justice, and protection of the freedom and security of persons.” - Political Bureau