Beware of Governments seeking too much protection in Protection of Information Bills

When governments in free countries lose the capacity to govern effectively, they look for scapegoats – and, invariably, one of the first things they will then do is chip away at the rights that underpin the democracy they once promised to grow and protect.

This has happened all over the world, including in so-called ‘developed’ countries such as the USA, the UK, France and Italy.

In South Africa, the ANC government, battered almost daily at national, provincial and local level by allegations (and sometimes more than that) of corruption and maladministration, has taken aim at the media.

The Protection of Information Bill makes provision for jail sentences of up to 10 years for journalists found in possession of, and seeking to publish, ‘classified’ information – even if the dissemination of that information is in the public interest.

Opponents of the Bill have described its punitive provisions as ‘anti-democratic’ and an ‘attack on press freedom’.

I agree. And so, as an ex-reporter (I covered the ‘struggle’ during one of the most traumatic periods in our country’s history), and as an ordinary citizen who has generally supported the policies of the ANC, I want to stand up to be counted … and to say to the government: ‘Hell, No! Not on my behalf.’

No one who knew me in the 1980s would ever have described me as a great journalist. But during two states of emergency, I was determined (as were many other reporters) to tell the story of communities under siege – and attack – by so-called guardians of law and order.

Believe me – I have seen what happens when a government gives itself, and those who act in its name, too much power….

I worked for a newspaper called the Cape Herald, with a team of four reporters and a kamikaze driver called Jack. In terms of the emergency regulations, journalists were not allowed into unrest areas.

But that didn’t deter us. We didn’t bother about what the penalty was for disregarding the security regulations of that time. We didn’t care.

We just went in – and recorded what we saw.

Every day, we wandered into Mitchells Plain, Athlone, Elsies River, Lotus River … in fact, all over the Cape Flats in our box-shaped yellow Ford Escort … to see for ourselves. But if this made us seem fearless, believe me, I certainly wasn’t.

I’m not shy to admit this: from morning to night, I was scared shitless.

On one occasion, at UWC, I tucked myself in behind the well-built frame of Tony Weaver of the Cape Times (because I had a totally untested theory that the police wouldn’t shoot a white reporter) as Dolf Odendaal, the head of the riot police, flew into a spit-spraying rant against the media.

On another occasion, I stood, camera around my neck, frozen to the spot, as railway police burst out of boxes on the back of a South African Transport Services truck, and shot dead three young protesters in Thornton Road, Athlone.

Together with three of my colleagues, I was prepared to defy a subpoena aimed at discovering the whereabouts of a current Cabinet Minister (who at the time was hiding in the Bo-Kaap, disguised as Muslim holy man called a tabliqi) and go to jail for two weeks at a time, until the security police were satisfied they had the information they required.

At the last minute, the authorities dropped the subpoena.

No, I wasn’t detained, like so many of my compatriots were. No, I wasn’t tortured like hundreds of fellow South Africans who tried to fight oppression with sticks and stones, and their bare hands. No, the police didn’t shoot at me, like they shot at those who so bravely confronted them. And no, not one of my relatives was killed in the countless, brutal, police sweeps into the townships.

Even so, in my own small way, I believe I served my fellow disenfranchised South Africans to the best of my ability. But now, like so many others, I find myself asking: ‘For what?’

When freedom came and we voted in our first democratic elections in 1994, I was convinced we would never again live through a time like the 1980s. I had even more reason to be optimistic when our new constitution was adopted shortly afterwards.

But our government’s response – or, in some instances, its lack of response – to frightening crime, insidious poverty, spiralling corruption and ongoing allegations of police brutality, among other problems, is threatening the democracy we looked forward to with so much hope.

Extremely worrying has been the state’s decision to target the messenger – through Protection of Information legislation.

It would be easy for the Zuma government (or even the first post-Zuma administration) to promise not to use this legislation to ‘classify’, say, allegations of corruption or of overly strong police action (to counter, for example, service delivery protests).

And it would be easy for you or me to believe them.

But what about the next government – or the one after the next one? The problem with a bad law is that it can lie around doing nothing for many years – until a really bad government comes along. This is why we should always be vigilant. This is why we should jealously protect our right to know – and to say ‘No’ when we need to … no matter who is in government.

It is the duty of those South Africans who won freedom the hard way to oppose actions by the state that do not serve the interests of the people.

There are lots of experiences – good and bad, both here and overseas – that we can learn from….

Here’s one: in relating a story of his student days at Tübingen University in the late 1950s, Terrence McCaughey, president of the former Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, highlighted the importance of being watchful. ‘There was a week-long film series on German politics from the Weimer Republic to the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler,’ McCaughey remembered.

On the morning after the final presentation, his Old Testament lecturer, Professor Karl Elliger, addressed the study group. ‘You young people no doubt think we were all stupid not to have seen what was happening’, the Professor observed.

‘We have no excuses,’ he admitted.

‘But learn this: evil never comes from the same direction, wearing the same face.

‘I hope you will be wiser and more discerning than our generation when the threat of evil next comes around,’ he said.

And he warned: ‘You need to be vigilant.’

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the Protection of Information Bill is evil. But I have no doubt it is anti-democratic. So, hear this, then: if we allow an anti-democratic measure to take root, and if we allow its sponsors to nurture it unchallenged, there’s no way of knowing what we, or our children, might end up with.

Think about it. And then, as the constitutionality of this law moves towards being tested in the Constitutional Court, remember that YOU have the power to make public opinion roar….