Tuesday was indeed a black day for all principled South Africans, for on that day hard fought for rights came crashing down when the ruling party used its majority vote to pass the Protection of Information Bill. On that day, the right to freedom of expression and the right of access to information, so critical to the open, transparent functioning of our constitutional democracy, were laid to rest.
They were laid to rest because no matter how important it is to us as the public that we know when our money is stolen through irregular tenders and shady deals, such information can be classified and rendered inaccessible. And so rightly, Tuesday will go down in history as Press Freedom Black Tuesday.
But amidst this gloom, there are three positive aspects surrounding the Bill from which we can draw some solace. The first is the extent to which the passage of this Bill has illustrated the power of civil society to influence its elected leaders when we articulate our views. This power was evidenced by the improvements that were made to the Bill since it was first introduced to the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Portfolio Committee. The most important of these improvements included confining the scope of the Bill primarily to departments comprising the security cluster and removing commercial information from its scope. These improvements were a direct result of civil society’s protests, both written and verbal.
The second positive aspect is the united, serious front presented by all the opposition parties. Their judicious, well thought, impassioned declarations to the House before voting took place was in stark contrast with the heckling, gaggling conduct of the majority of the members of the ruling party. The conduct of all the opposition members illustrated respect of both the seriousness of the legislation before the house and the grandeur of Parliament itself. It is a pity that the two principled ANC members who did not support the Bill, did not add their voice.
The last positive aspect is the extent to which the thousands of ordinary citizens have grasped that the Bill is not merely about journalists. In the many speeches made by protesters outside the House, essentially made by leaders of NGO’s representing the poorest of the poor, the message was clear. Censorship of information will affect their immediate lives in that their right to access critical information such as housing lists and service delivery commitments could be denied.
Without a public interest defence, the Bill will not pass Constitutional muster and the opposition parties were united in their commitment to refer the Bill, should it become an Act, to the Constitutional Court. We, the citizens, should however not wait for our Courts to have to do the work that our elected representatives should be doing. Their duty is to uphold the Constitution and to promote the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights through passing constitutionally compliant laws.
The Bill still needs to be approved by the National Council of Provinces and thereafter assented to by the President. Fortified by the gains that we made in the National Assembly Portfolio Committee, we must now intensify our protests and make vigorous objection to the Select Committee of the National Council of Provinces. We, the citizens, must insist that our duly elected representatives in that house at least, take heed of our constitutionally sanctioned demands.
Nikki de Havilland
FW De Klerk Foundation