That was on November 19 1997, but now all that looks set to change, with political parties, media organisations, civil society groups and trade unions saying the ANC’s feared Protection of State Information Bill will stifle the right of the media and whistleblowers to expose corruption.
The ANC is expected to use its majority in the National Assembly today to pass the bill, which makes provision for the classification of state information and imposes stiff penalties of up to 25 years’ imprisonment of people in possession of classified information.
Ahead of the vote this afternoon, opposition to the bill has reached fever pitch.
Editors from around the country are in Cape Town to join a picket by the Right2Know campaign a nationwide coalition of individuals and organisations – outside Parliament.
The National Press Club’s campaign calling on South Africans to wear black in protest at the bill had gone viral on social networks by last night.
The SA National Editors’ Forum wrote to all members of Parliament yesterday, urging them to vote against the legislation.
It said despite important work on the bill in the past 18 months, there were still “serious remaining flaws” . Chief was the lack of a public interest defence.
“In its current form, the bill represents an attack on principles of open democracy that are deeply embedded in our Constitution and our national life.”
Prominent human rights activist Rhoda Kadalie lashed out at the ANC yesterday, saying it had confused what was in the best interests of the public with what was in the best interests of the party.
“When liberation democratic parties feel threatened, they go for the judiciary, they go for the media and they go for freedom of speech.”
The SA Municipal Workers’ Union said the bill would “disadvantage whistleblowers and workers who are fighting corruption “. It called on all unions “to ensure that the secrecy bill does not become law”.
Protests are planned in Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and Cape Town.
A joint statement by activist groups Equal Education, the Treatment Action Campaign, Section27, the Social Justice Campaign and Ndifuna Ukwazi, said if it became law “members of parliament will be saying to South Africans that it is okay to punish the people who disclose and write about corruption and mismanagement in government.”.
The ANC has defended the bill, with chief whip Mathole Motshekga’s office saying that the lack of a public interest defence was in line with “international best practice” and a “serious country” would not “compromise the security of its citizens for the sake of a scoop for the media”.
Meanwhile, it has been reliably learnt that an SMS message to ANC MPs started circulating last night, urging them to attend Parliament wearing any colour other than black.
It reads: “Dear Members, all ANC MPs are encouraged to avoid wearing black tomorrow as planned by opposition. Any brighter colour is encouraged.”