28 January 2011

Secrecy bill to apply to 1 001 organs of state

The Freedom of Information Programme has been significantly involved in the work of the Right2Know Campaign, which has been focussing its efforts on combating the Protection of Information Bill currently before its parliamentary committee. The Bill, as it stands, grants exceptionally broad powers to organs of state to classify documents. Not only is this reminiscent of a paranoid state which too greatly emphasises national security above its people's freedoms, but it will also have a directly detrimental effect on information release generally in South Africa.

One of the issues of greatest concern for citizens opposing the Bill is its application to all organs of state - which means that all organs of state will be able to classify documents if they believe them to be in the interests of national security. Questions have arisen during deliberations which called in to question just how far the scope of this Bill would be. However, in retort to this, the parliamentary chairperson Mr Cecil Burgess had previously dismissed calls for that information to be compiled, saying it would be like "counting grains of sand in the Sahara desert".

Fortunately, the Institute for Democracy (Idasa) fundamentally believed in the relevance of such investigations and undertook its own audit to determine which entities would fall under the scope of the Act. The results were worrying. There are potentially 1 001 entities that would constitute ‘organs of state'. The Bill would give the power to make secrets to such entities as universities, state-owned corporations such as Eskom, Johannesburg City Parks, the Brakpan Bus Company, Rotondo Walnuts (Pty) Ltd, Artscape, the South African Weather Service, the Ugu District Municipality and the Voortrekker Museum. One wonders what secrets the Johannesburg Zoo could ever hold that they should be given broad powers to remove that information from South African society's watchful eye? As was so pertinently stated by Mark Weinberg, the national coordinator of the Right2Know Campaign: "This latest revelation is further proof that the Secrecy Bill's provisions are ludicrously broad. With 1,001 bodies listed as organs of state, this Bill will apply to everything under the sun. If this Bill goes through, we'll have NIA agents running around the Johannesburg Zoo."

The Right2Know Campaign will be meeting in a National Summit on 1-2 February in Cape Town to discuss these and other developments and make decisions on the scope and strategy for the future of the campaign. To find out more about the campaign's work, visit the Right2Know Campaign website.