23 November 2011

South Africa on slippery slope?

Normally, I'm wary of slippery slope arguments but when an African government acts to limit freedom of speech, I suspect such an argument may be valid. Unfortunately, South Africa has done just that. A law, ostensibly to protect state secrets, has been approved by the South African National Assembly. The law makes it a crime to leak, possess or publish information judged as classified by the government. Whistle blowers and journalists will face up to 25 years in jail if found guilty of such action. The government will, of course, determine what is classified. There is, crucially, no public-interest defence clause.

Critics argue that this is a first step in dismantling South African democracy. And the critics are many. Leader of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, Lindiwe Mazibuko, warned: "This bill will unstitch the very fabric of our constitution. It will criminalize the freedom so many of our people fought for." Archbishop Desmond Tutu added, "It is insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that … makes the state answerable only to the state. Please hear the warnings of the academics, civil society leaders, labour representatives, media corps, and legal and constitutional experts." Even the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, which rarely criticizes the governing African National Congress party, issued an "expression of concern."

Although the bill will probably be approved by parliament's upper house, it could still face a challenge in the constitutional court. For the sake of South African democracy, let us hope that it does.

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