ANC’s Protection of Information Bill a gag for our democracy

GIG LOMBARD

“The state is made for man, not man for the state…” Einstein

“If there is no consensus we will vote on the matter and move on.” These are the restive words of Cecil Burgess, Chairperson of the ad hoc committee, frame working the bill. The Protection of Information Bill is only supported by less than a third of urban residents, according to a recent TNS survey. The African National Congress’s (ANC’s) unhinged stand to pass the protection of information bill has flooded our Internet sites with angry; fretful and unnerved South African citizens.

Many in high standing have reproached the bill accusing it of being an optimal way to gag the media. This is highlighted by The Protection of Information Bill not offering the same protection to journalists – our actual real source of information – as it does to dilators who expose any criminal offenses, simply because the people should approach the police with perturbing information and not the press.

A question was posed on the Internet asking what we should do if the distressing information we possessed was accusations against the police? This opens a can of worms later chewed over.

If this bill is passed, our only hope is the constitutional court. With this in mind, the havoc it will cause in the interim is not a sight that waves a democratic banner. Even though the bill clearly states in its opening pages that its aims are “to promote the free flow of information within an open and democratic society without compromising the security of the republic”; what its pages declare are not in line with the aims that it boasts.

The Protection of Information bill sanctions jail sentences of up to 25 years to be served upon any persons leaking ‘classified’ information. In layman’s terms our media liberties, which are perhaps taken for granted, will be severely restricted; the ability for many organizations to not only help government to sustain South African life for the better, but to also hold them liable to do so, will be grievously handicapped. This bill will allow officials from almost every state organization to classify information as they so wish, making us totally oblivious to their activities from mere peccadillo’s to any serious felonies, which would or would not affect our society.

Apart from rights campaigners having labeled it the ‘secrets bill’, as we can see, with just cause, COSATU stated “This Bill is a significant setback for the protection of openness, transparency and accountability guaranteed by our Constitution.” It is also fascinating to note that a draft bill was only sent to “The Department of Police, The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and the Department of Defense and War Veterans for comments.” Time to chew over the police issue in our country on par with the protection of information bill.

How many mornings does the paper glare back at us with the once trusted faces of unlawful police officials; how they have taken the liberties given to them and defaced our society in some barbaric way or another? It is safe to say that there is many a police officer worthy of the badge they wear, but there are so many more that are blinded by bribery and corruption and how do we tell the difference?

Our people have no security, if the only avenue for assistance is to be left in the hands of such an unstable organ of government. By the protection of information bill cutting our journalistic lifeline and leaving us in the hands of the blue uniforms, South Africans are left with no safety at all. One of our most controversial journalist’s, Deborah Patta, who in my opinion is Queen when it comes to unveiling and attacking corruption in our country, will no longer be able to give us her 3rd degree as it now stands; killings, rapes, fraudulent activities and devastating medical offenses can now be billed under the carpet.

According to the bill, hard-line journalism has only one end result: by giving the very often vile truth to the people – information that society justly deserves to have – reporters could face a hefty prison sentence if they happen to publicize information within the grounds of classification! Where does the media stand with this? The press’ information will be catered for just as ours will be. The fourth estate will suffer a slow ending, branded by restriction or the slammer by ‘The protection of Information Bill’ or will it?

Journalism is an art of monumental proportions. To be a true journalist, as a lecturer of mine once said, “…means the story comes first, before you do.” It is in the journalistic nature, to unveil the heart of the greatest sins, whether the printed truth begets beheaded ends or not, therefore the bills threatened bars and prophesied ends of our newshounds curbed by classification, is by reportage, truly futile.

Reading through the Protection of Information Bill, my heart raced more and more the further I read, but reaching Chapter 12, Section 44 and 45, “The Offences and penalties” I found something incredibly interesting and perhaps rather disturbing – Over and over the Bill states that prison offences range from periods not exceeding 25, 15 and 5 years respectively for communicating, delivering, obtaining, collecting, capturing or copying a record of any information that would jeopardize our states international relations, amongst other outcomes. It also states that anyone who aids, abets or harbors any persons committing these crimes will receive the same punishments as the guilty party. Why I ask is our government setting a law which prohibits any action which incapacitates their international standing? Why are they protecting themselves to such a degree that even with just cause we cannot seek assistance from the rest of the world without being imprisoned?

An extremely important point to make is that when the world realized what government had done to the people of South Africa during Apartheid we were cut off, if they had, had a bill such as this one, it would have been near to impossible for the world to find out about the atrocities that the government imposed on our society… but they did not think that far. Our Rulers are either covering all bases needed to protect and ensure that any possible future intentions will occur as willed, or they are simply creating a means to conceal criminal activity.

However, this article must tackle this issue with a fair approach and to do this we have to look closely at the era that we currently live in. Information does not have the same respect as it used to. Classification of anything, simply signals the start to an exposure game, for that is exactly what privacy has become. This is exactly what humanity has become. Nothing is sacred anymore; every document, creed, deed and action eventually becomes public knowledge. There is no place to hide and anything and everything could be molded to become newsworthy. We live in an age where share and share alike is our motto; with this in mind, the information that is open source and public knowledge stems from the most intimate details of marriages and business affairs, to arms deals. The more sullied the information the more viewers. In fact, we live in a time where it is possible to realistically imagine a time where even before someone has committed a crime, its devastating consequences will be splashed on the World Wide Web, or free news at the breakfast table. The bill is a minority report. A purpose for its aims can be found within our society, but not in the way in which it is currently drafted!

On the upside, our televisions will exhibit far less violence; newsworthiness will now have to work around jail sentences and we will be living the blissful ignorance of a peace which human existence cannot possibly uphold for too long without an insurgent need for justice and truth. Unfortunately it is a human dilemma to either do something to the nth degree or not to do it at all. Society as a whole needs to find a way to practice a happy medium and within that happy medium to take the time and effort to consider all concerned. The Protection of Information Bill is a perfect example of how we are not doing this. The way it stands is fraught with danger if and when bloody hands use it. Our countries medical fallacies are exemplary; the hospitals blunders will now be able to disappear. They will be classified into myth and subsequently pass from sight with the bills of hundreds and thousands. Pay-offs will be eloquently classified!

There are simply far too many set backs; complications and hazardous outcomes within the pages of the Protection of Information Bill, for us to even ponder on making any provisions for it to be passed in the form that it currently stands. In doing this we will only open doorways to a social disintegration leading to an inevitable rebellion. So why not fight it now? Why not rather be safe than sorry? We are human after all, which one of us will happily live day by day without knowing what the truth is, if we cannot even keep our ears away from our own neighbors behaviors? How long can an entire country and all its organizations conceal infelicities? How long do the protectors and voters in favor of this bill think that this country will stand to be ruled by breast-fed information?

Whether the intentions of this bill are small scale and honorable in protecting our government and all organizations included, or a scheme to penetrate and stake the heart of the rainbow without having to fear exposure; suffer international judgment, or be susceptible to societies uproar, the bill’s possibilities to destroy are as clear as daylight. We cannot predict the reasons or intentions; we can only work with what information is accessible and be prepared for whatever the outcome may be.

I do believe however that as our Nation and the world at large has seen the workings of many governments’ tyranny, and the destruction that they have inflicted upon their people, that we as a young freedom seeking country will not stand for the same enslavement. We are not sheep nor are we haters. Liberty has been our goal for so long now, the freedom of speech has been the muse and stairway to many South African stars, it has become the proud stories of the aged heroes to their grandchildren; our liberty has been brushed in bright colors and we proudly wave that flag, battle scars being the gold we have paved our present with. Why will we South Africans surrender everything we have toy-toyed; marched and bled for to one Bill?

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