20 February 2012

South Africa ramps up pressure while Nepal backs down on restrictive information laws

A recent attempt by the Nepalese government to stifle the free flow of state information by classifying state information raises many of the same issues as the South African government's controversial secrecy bill. Both states are making efforts to allow for the classification of information in a number of broad based categories. However, in Nepal the government has yielded to public pressure.

Despite vocal dissent at a series of public hearings held by the National Council of Provinces in South Africa, pressure from civil society, condemnation from domestic and international media, and an impending challenge before the Constitutional Court, the South African government shows no intention of halting its attempt to muscle the secrecy bill into law.

On the other hand, as Nepalese news sources have reported, public outcry from civil society, the media, and the international community has led the government of Nepal to backpedal on implementing a new directive on the classification of information. After recent protests in Nepal, and an order of the Supreme Court demanding non-implementation of the directive, the Prime Minister gave assurances that a broader process of public consultation would take place before any new classification scheme was given effect by the government.

The breadth of the categories of information that could be classified in South Africa's secrecy bill and substantial power given to the Minister of State Security give cause for concern. Under the bill, a vast array of different kinds of information could become inaccessible if the government deems them classified, regardless as to whether the information bears a realistic connection to national security, as the government has suggested must be the case.

In Nepal, similar criticisms apply. The directive would render many records inaccessible, which are currently available to the public under the 2007 Right to Information Act. The directive, which came into force in mid-January, contained 24 different categories of secrets and 116 types of information that would be classified. Critics of the directive insisted that many of these new classification rules were vague and could be subject to abuse.

The existing access to information legislation in both countries already provides for situations whereby information may be refused for policy reasons, including, for example, national security and international relations, among other things. As such, those governments have failed to show the added value of a bill designed to prevent the disclosure of information on issues of this nature.

In both South Africa and Nepal, one can only hope that the consultation processes that precede the implementation of any limits on the right to freedom of information are given meaningful consideration and that the recommendations flowing from those processes are put into effect. The state of democracy in these nations depends on it.

For more information on this story, please contact the FOIP team at SAHA.