18 April 2012

ASA refuse to rule on secrecy bill advertisements

The Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA) has refused to investigate a complaint made by the Right2Know campaign regarding government advertisements promoting the Protection of State Information Bill (commonly known as the secrecy bill).

On 10 April the Right2Know campaign wrote to the ASA complaining that four of the five television advertisements produced on behalf of the Department of State Security in relation to the secrecy bill are in breach of the ASA advertising code. The Right2Know claim that the adverts breach the honesty requirements of the code as they "exploit the lack of knowledge of the consumer and exploit his or her credulity, in that their claims regarding the purpose and content of the [secrecy bill] are factually misleading."

The complaint by the Right2Know campaign emphasises that while all of the government advertisements relate to the protection of ‘personal' information, it is the protection of ‘classified' information which is the main purpose of the bill. While the Right2Know acknowledges that personal information may be protected, to some degree, by the ‘valuable information' provisions of the bill, it highlighted that there are only four clauses, in a bill that contains over 50 clauses, that relate to valuable information.

ASA responded to the Right2Know campaign on 18 April claiming that the adverts relate to a ‘controversial issue' and therefore ASA is barred from considering the matter.

The refusal of the ASA to determine, or even investigate the issue, is very disappointing. ASA is an independent body designed to ensure that the self-regulation of the marketing communication industry works in the public interest. In that context its failure to rule on the factual accuracy of the advertisements because the content of the bill is ‘controversial', must bring into question its political independence. As the Business Day noted in its editorial on 20 April:

"The question of whether a government department should be actively engaging in a one-sided campaign to influence the public in favour of a piece of legislation while the bill is still before Parliament and open for public comment, and therefore theoretically subject to change before it is promulgated, is a matter for politicians and civil society to decide.

But the fairness of the adverts - whether they represented the facts correctly or twisted the truth to promote a particular political agenda - surely falls squarely within the ASA's ‘jurisdiction'."