Conflict & Justice

Clinton stays mum on South Africa's 'Secrecy Bill'


Hillary Clinton meets with the chairperson of the African Union Commission, South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria. Clinton spoke about all kinds of things during her stop in South Africa, but hasn't mentioned the one thing human rights groups are calling for her action on – controversial information legislation.



Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped in South Africa yesterday and visited with former president Nelson Mandela, talked with Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to shore up support for Syrian rebels, and will discuss AIDS programs tomorrow.

But Clinton hasn't mentioned the topic former UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson called the "enemy of truth": a bill that would punish journalists and whistleblowers who leak classified information by up to 25 years in prison. 

The controversial Protection of State Information bill, colloquially known as the Secrecy Bill, is being considered by South Africa's leading African National Congress (ANC) party, and opponents say it's a huge affront to free speech and a thorn in the side of the on-going battle against corruption in the government. 

The bill contains broad definitions of terms such as "national security" and would punish anyone publishing or accessing information the person “knows or ought reasonably to have known would directly or indirectly benefit” a foreign or non-state entity, including the press and legitimate whistleblowers. 

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The Protection of State Information bill is meant to be an update to an apartheid-era Protection of Information Act 84 of 1982, which is outdated and doesn't properly provide for 21st century security concerns. 

However, many believe this new bill isn't the answer, and it should be either scrubbed completely or significantly rewritten. 

Advocacy group Right2Know (a coalition of similar-minded groups) has been working against the adoption of the bill since its first iteration in 2008, and through its most recent draft, which was debated in the National Assembly in November 2011. Although some revisions were made to the bill, notably removing areas relating to the confusing terms "national interest" and "commercial interest," Right2Know maintains the bill is dangerous to South Africa's democracy. 

"Effectively, parliamentarians are asking us to accept a bill that is the result of emergency surgery," said a statement from Right2Know after the last draft was released. "Through this process we may get a compromised version of a fundamentally flawed Bill but we can never expect it to produce a truly progressive piece of legislation that advances the democratic project in South Africa. This Bill needs to be withdrawn, and redrafted in its entirety!"

Human Rights Watch called on Secretary Clinton to broach the issue in an open letter published before she embarked for Africa, saying, "Ever since the bill was introduced in March 2010, it has been subject to serious criticism as being inconsistent with South Africa’s constitution and human rights obligations.

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"The bill has been amended over the past few years, but the draft version still omits a public interest defense. The absence of this clause means that journalists, whistleblowers, and others could be imprisoned for up to 25 years for leaking or sharing information deemed classified by the government and which exposes corruption, mismanagement, or malfeasance, even in the face of a compelling public interest."

Mary Robinson, who acted as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002 and is the former President of Ireland, is also in South Africa this week, and has jumped at the opportunity to condemn the bill.

Robinson was the keynote speaker at the Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at the Cape Town City Hall on Monday and said by passing such legislation that "cloaks the workings of State actors, that interferes with press freedom to investigate corruption, that stifles efforts by whistleblowers to expose corruption, you are sure to increase those levels of corruption tomorrow."

Although she lauded South Africa's recent history of demonstrable attempts to further democracy, Robinson said the ANC's "moral authority had been eroded in recent years," according to "The public interest demands that basic truth, of having both transparency and accountability in government," she said. 

For her part, Clinton has vaguely called on South African leaders to step up and be a greater example of democracy on the continent – but she has yet to call out the Secrecy Bill specifically. 

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of Africa, and AIDS specifically, check out our Special Report "AIDS: Turning Point."