South Africa’s parliament has approved a controversial state secrecy bill, ignoring widespread condemnation and questions over whether the bill is constitutional.
The Protection of Information Bill, which the ruling African National Congress party says is intended to protect state secrets, would classify information deemed to be “in the national interest,” and make the publication of classified information punishable by up to 25 years in jail.
There have been calls for the bill to include a public interest defense, which would protect journalists in their investigative reporting, but on Tuesday the bill passed as is in South Africa’s House of Assembly by 229 votes to 107, with two MPs abstaining from the vote, the South African Press Association reported.
Journalists wearing black protested outside ANC party headquarters in Johannesburg, while South African luminaries from the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to writer Nadine Gordimer spoke out against the bill.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has said it will fight for amendments to the bill, which still must be passed by the upper house and signed into law by the president.
Nelson Mandela’s foundation also spoke out about the information bill, saying it failed to strike a balance between meeting standards of constitutionality, allowing freedom of expression, and protecting legitimate state secrets.
While journalism has flourished in South Africa since the end of apartheid, especially the country’s combative newspaper industry that regularly exposes corruption and government waste, media watchdogs have in the past year sounded an alarm about a potential return to repression. The ANC has also been pushing for a Media Appeals Tribunal that would oversee journalism and answer to parliament.
Gordimer, a Nobel Prize-winning author, told the Johannesburg Times that the Protection of Information Bill was “totally against” freedom and said it was taking South Africa back to the time of white minority rule, when journalists were censored, arrested and sometimes forced into exile when they tried to cover the anti-apartheid movement, including the banned ANC party.
Tutu called the bill an insult “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.”
Human Rights Watch called the bill “a blow to freedom of expression and democratic accountability," while Reporters Without Borders said it was “deeply disappointed and very worried” by the bill’s approval.
“If this law is promulgated, it will deal a very severe blow to journalists in a country that is known for having some of Africa’s most vibrant media,” the group said. “South Africa’s status as a regional model is at stake.”
The ANC, in a statement Tuesday, said it is “essentially a security bill, not a media bill.”
"It is firmly in line with best international practice as states have constitutional obligations to protect their people and territorial integrity," the governing party said.