South Africa MPs pass controversial 'secrecy bill'

A protester looks on outside the ruling African National Congress (ANC) headquarters, during a protest against the passing of new laws on state secrets in Johannesburg, November 22, 2011. The ANC denies that the law is designed to muzzle the press

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South African MPs have overwhelmingly approved a controversial media bill despite widespread criticism of it.

Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it "insulting" and warned it could be used to outlaw "whistle-blowing and investigative journalism".

South African journalists wearing black have staged a protest against the so-called "secrecy bill" outside the headquarters of the governing ANC.

The ANC says the law will safeguard state secrets and national security.

The African National Congress has a two-thirds majority in 400-seat National Assembly - the bill passed by 229 votes to 107, with two MPs choosing not to vote.

The bill has still to be passed by the upper house - likely to happen next year - and signed by the president before becoming law.

The office of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first post-apartheid president and also a Nobel peace laureate, has expressed reservations about the bill too.

The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory said the bill failed to strike a balance between free speech and protecting legitimate state secrets.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance told parliament that it would petition the Constitutional Court to have the bill declared unconstitutional if the president signed it in its current form.

What is in the 'secrecy bill'?

  • The bill would give the state the power to classify documents as secret in the "national interest"
  • "National interest" defined very broadly, critics say, and could include reports about government corruption and human rights abuses
  • Jail terms of up to 25 years for anyone in possession of classified documents or harbouring state secrets
  • No public interest clause
  • Citizens and journalists treated as foreign spies if found in possession of information deemed a state secret

For the court to hear the matter, 134 MPs need to sign the petition - which correspondents say seems likely to happen as the combined number of opposition party MPs is 136.

Although some elements have been watered down, the Protection of State Information Bill still proposes tough sentences of up to 25 years for anyone possessing classified government documents, with no defence of acting in the public interest.

The BBC's Karen Allen says the bill's critics see it as an assault on a vigorous media, which has drawn attention to allegations of corruption by senior ANC officials.

President Jacob Zuma's spokesman Mac Maharaj has recently filed a lawsuit against South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper - preventing it from publishing information linking him to a controversial 1999 arms deal .

The South African media broke the story using secret documents, but under the new law, journalists and their editors could face stiff jail sentences for similar disclosures, correspondents say.

Secrecy 'saves lives'

On the eve of the vote, Archbishop Tutu appealed to lawmakers not to approve the bill.

He said it was "insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism... and that makes the state answerable only to the state".

Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressing the media after the Dalai Lama cancelled his trip - 4 October 2011 Archbishop Tutu won a Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to white minority rule

South African Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer has also condemned the bill, which she said was taking South Africa back to the years of white minority rule, the Johannesburg-based Times Live news site reports.

The bill was "totally against" freedom, she said.

"The corrupt practices and nepotism that they [politicians] allow themselves is exposed if we have freedom of expression," Ms Gordimer is quoted as saying.

South Africa's National Press Club (NPC) - backed by the Right2Know campaign group - called on people to wear black and dubbed the day of the vote "Black Tuesday" in a reference to apartheid-era press restrictions.

A few hundred people gathered outside parliament carrying placards - some were dressed in black, others had tape over their mouths.

Elsewhere, some 200 people protested outside Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters in central Johannesburg, and others gathered in Soweto at the site to remember Hector Pieterson, the youngest victim of the 1976 student uprising against apartheid.

All major newspaper have published editorials condemning the proposed measures.

The ANC has rejected the criticism of the bill, saying it meets international standards and secrecy is sometimes needed to save lives.

"You cannot compare the situation that existed under the draconian and inhumane apartheid [regime] with legislation proposed by a democratic parliament elected by a majority of the people of South Africa," said chief whip Mathole Motshega.

South Africa's restrictive media laws were overturned when it became a democracy in 1994.

Archbishop Tutu won a Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to white minority rule but has recently become a vocal critic of the ANC government.

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