(Campaigners) against the bill have presented a threat to the rights of the grassroots poor as one to the media
IF WE want to protect our freedoms, we need to make sure they are not seen as the concern of only a few. The Protection of State Information Bill, which comes before Parliament today, is a threat to the freedom of many of us. But those who have campaigned against it have misread both its intent and its likely effect. In the process, they have revealed how the battle for freedom in this society is still the preserve of only some of us.
That the bill is being tabled over their protests may show the weakness of a defence of libertyrestricted to the middle classes.
To begin with the intent. Contrary to widespread belief, this bill is not aimed at closing down media coverage of government corruption and incompetence. If it was, it would not say information cannot be classified if it reveals wrongdoing or ineptitude in the government.
Nor would changes have been introduced that seek to ensure that only security information is secret. Rather, it is an attempt by the security establishment, particularly the intelligence services, to ensure that it operates in secrecy.
The bill began life, ironically, as an exercise in replacing apartheid-era law — it was meant to replace a restrictive statute passed by the old regime with one in tune with the democratic values of our constitution. But the attempt to further free up information law must have run aground on the obsessive demand for security, which is the stock-in-trade of intelligence agencies.
The spies and their political allies seem to have stepped in to insist that too much openness threatens our safety.
Government defenders of the bill, from State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele down, harp on about our vulnerability to foreign spies — without saying who our enemies are and why we would be threatened if foreigners know what our security agencies do. This shows the influence of the intelligence operatives on government thinking.
Why would politicians want to end reporting on corruption? Political insiders know that most of what we hear or read about government wrongdoing comes from politicians fighting their battles by fingering other politicians: they are not about to close down an essential weapon in their armoury. The real problem is the growing influence of the security establishment over the current administration. President Jacob Zuma has staffed the security cluster with trusted allies and this is why their desire to operate in the dark carries so much weight.
Failure to see this has distorted the campaign against the bill. Thus, some campaigners have argued that it is legitimate to protect state secrets but not to deter reporting of corruption. This shuts out a vital debate — on how legitimate it is to allow intelligence agencies to keep secrets from us. All over the world, security and intelligence establishments try to keep information secret which the public should know. Here, repeated revelations that government intelligence is used to fight political battles, not to protect us from threat, should cause us to challenge the spies’ demand that we keep our nose out of their affairs. We need to challenge their insistence on secrecy — the misdiagnosis of the problem has prevented us from doing this.
What about the effect?
What bills are meant to do, of course, is not always what they really do.
It is here that another misdiagnosis shows the elite bias behind the way our mainstream debate sees freedom.
We are told repeatedly that this law will close down investigative journalism and prevent the media from reporting on government wrongdoing.
This ignores the point made earlier — that it contains clauses insisting that it cannot be used in this way. Officials who want to protect themselves will no doubt ignore them. But there is no reason why the media should.
Journalists are presumably entitled to take the law at its word and to continue reporting all those government failures the law says they can reveal. If they are prosecuted, they will hire lawyers who will point out that they were protected by the law. As long as our courts remain competent and independent, no journalist reporting on government misbehaviour can be convicted.
And so, if the government does try to use this law against the media, it is likely to find that the effort is futile.
The clause is unlikely to offer the same protection to a group of township or shack settlement residents who want to know where the money for their development projects went. If municipal officials use the bill to protect themselves, the activists are unlikely to be able to afford a lawyer to help them fight the prohibition.
If we add the reality that media organisations have far more of the resources needed to get hold of documents that officials and politicians do not want us to see, it is clear that the real losers will not be the media but grassroots citizens.
Trying to get the government to serve citizens has always been more difficult for the poor than for the middle classes and the affluent. This bill will make it even harder.
Those who have campaigned against the bill have, therefore, presented a threat to the rights of the grassroots poor as one to the media. As usual, rights and freedoms are those of the middle class and the affluent, not the poor. If this does not change, freedom could be in serious trouble.
Since 1994, freedom has been preserved here largely because the suburban elite that dominates business and the professions has been strong enough to dissuade a government they distrust from tampering with their liberties. This does not mean that a desire for freedom is restricted to the suburbs — the evidence suggests that it is shared by many at the grassroots. But it is the affluent who have the resources and the connections to make themselves heard. And the government knows that there are economic costs to ignoring them.
This has benefited the entire society — the poor need freedom at least as much as the better off. While they have often been denied it by local power realities that do not affect the suburbs, poor people would be even worse off if our freedoms go. But for how long can a freedom preserved by only a fraction of the society endure?
We may not yet have reached a pass at which freedom will be in dire peril if its only advocates are the suburban middle classes. But we are sure to reach it sooner or later.
In a limited way, perhaps we already have — would the bill have survived if it had faced the sustained resistance of the grassroots, who stand most to lose from it?
The fact that the bill is now before Parliament should serve as a warning.
If our mainstream debate remains obsessed with the freedom of the few and ignores that of the many, that freedom will remain fragile.
If, however, we understand that the chief victims of unrestrained official power remain the poor and that poor people must play a key role in protecting all our freedoms, we may yet ensure that we not only hold onto the freedoms we have but ensure that more and more of us enjoy them.
Article by Steven Friedman for BusinessDay
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.