SOUTH AFRICA: Bill is a threat to democracy, research

The Protection of Information Bill, which was passed by South Africa's national assembly with a majority vote on 22 November, has raised the ire of researchers, who have slammed it as a threat to democracy and academic freedom.

The bill will make research into aspects of the security cluster, such as the intelligence services, police and defence force, extremely difficult, said Professor Jane Duncan, Highway Africa chair of media and information society in the school of media studies at Rhodes University.

Duncan said any research that was in the public interest but was based on leaked classified information would be criminalised, and the researcher could be arrested for failing to report possession of classified information.

"This will inevitably have a chilling effect on academic freedom, as researchers may be put off from researching the security cluster for fear of coming into possession of a classified document," she told University World News. "Legal research into court proceedings involving classified documents will become practically impossible," she added.

Duncan explained that research into security matters was especially important given the growing evidence of problems in this cluster. The intelligence services in South Africa stand accused of having an overly broad mandate and allowing their resources to be used for spying on political opponents.

"The police are being re-militarised, leading to injuries and deaths of civilians and protesters. There are also signs of discontent in the military...Yet there has been a virtual lockdown on information on what is happening in the cluster, and the bill is likely to exacerbate this problem," said Duncan.

She said that while there had been some major improvements to the bill since it was first mooted, the grounds for classification of documents were still vague and open to generous interpretation.

"The definition of national security, which mandates the classification of documents, includes economic, technical and scientific information, which means that areas of academia that rely on such information will be especially hard hit," she said.

Everyone will be watching the extent to which classified information will be declassified, according to Professor Carlson Anyangwe, acting director of the school of law at Walter Sisulu University.

"What we do know is that governments all over the world tend to classify information, some [up] to 25 to 30 years. Others do not even bother to declassify the information at all. For us it is critical to know," Anyangwe told University World News.

The Protection of Information Bill in its current form threatened the freedom of expression of every South African, including academics, according to Professor Johann van der Merwe, head of public relations management at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

"No-one [including academics] will be able to claim that they have the right to know, because the bill deprives every South African of the right to know, as it excludes any 'public interest'." Van der Merwe said the bill was in blatant defiance of South Africa's progressive constitution, as well as one of the basic principles of democracy: freedom of expression.

"If I as an academic (or any ordinary South African) cannot disclose acts of corruption (or worse) of the government - where is the democracy that the so-called 'struggle' was all about?" he said.

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University council said in a statement that the bill limited the ability of universities to perform their functions in a free society. the council chair, Ronnie Pillay, said the university agreed there was a need to replace the old apartheid secrecy legislation that was clearly not in line with South Africa's democratic constitution.

"However, we believe that the bill, in its current form, conflicts with other basic tenets on the right to public access to information, notably, Sections 16 and 32 of the constitution and the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000."

The council said the negative impact of the bill on access to information and freedom of speech posed a direct threat to the role of universities, whose role was to "speak truth to power". It called on parliament to drastically review limitations placed by the bill on access to information and free speech and bring the proposed legislation in line with the promise of the country's democratic constitution.

The day after the bill was passed by parliament, the senate of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) issued a statement saying that the 'secrecy bill' was a "deep threat" to the fundamental principles enshrined in South Africa's constitution and would obstruct the access to information needed to ensure transparent and accountable governance.

"The current formulation of this bill and the heavy penalties it mandates would impede both the right of the public to legitimate freedom of information and the intellectual enquiry that is the essence of academic work."

Professor Arnold van Zyl, vice-rector of research at Stellenbosch University, said pressure by civic society that had led to a watered-down bill was commendable, but the bill still had pernicious sections that academics needed addressed.

He told University World News that barring certain information as classified would hit hard - especially at his university, where military studies were taught. He said while South Africa was lauded the world over for having academic freedom enshrined in its constitution, this bill would compromise that.

"There is a worry that the bill might be used as an instrument against foreign academics and students who may be deemed to produce unacceptable research by authorities," he said.

Hussein Solomon, senior professor in the department of political science at the University of the Free State, said given the fact that for now the ruling party, the African National Congress, was assured of an electoral majority they had managed to make parliament a rubber stamp of the executive as opposed to holding the executive accountable.

He said the media had increasingly held the ruling party to account by exposing corruption and incompetence in government.

Solomon said the passing of the information bill was therefore not merely an attack on the media, but an attack on the pivotal issue of accountability.

"Without accountability, there can be no democracy," he said.

"What South Africans need is more information on what government structures are doing and how they are doing it with taxpayers' money, not less information," said Professor Johann de Wet, departmental chair of communication science at Free State University.

While information in itself did not equal communication or dialogue, it was an indispensable part of communication, and the need for dialogue based on verifiable information was urgent for meeting the challenges facing South African communities, according to De Wet.

The Protection of Information Bill was initially introduced to parliament by Ronnie Kasrils, the former state security minister, in 2008. He has since resigned and has become one of its most vocal opponents.

The vice-chancellors' association, Higher Education South Africa (HESA), was concerned that while the whistleblower was protected from prosecution for disclosure, the researcher was not and could face imprisonment for a term ranging from five to 25 years depending on the type of information received and published.

HESA noted in its November report that there were many documents that may be classified for what the bill considered to be 'proper reasons' that researchers would be unable to access, given the bill's overly broad definition of what constituted national security.

"While the bill is a considerable improvement on the version tabled initially, aspects of the bill still favour secrecy above openness and transparency in the organs of state security in a manner that threatens academic freedom. It will probably lead to information plugs," the report said.

HESA urged universities to audit the implications of the bill for their work by identifying projects that may be affected by the bill, and to develop positions for lobbying for changes that take academic freedom - and the related freedoms of expression and access to information - into account.