PEN Expresses Concern Over Secrecy Bill Passed in South African National Assembly

23 Nov 2011

Cape Town and London, November 23, 2011

South African PEN and PEN International today expressed alarm over the passage of the Protection of Information bill by the National Assembly, saying that the bill, if enacted into law, represents ‘a retreat towards the secrecy that characterized South Africa before its democratic transition.’

‘The Protection of Information bill,’ said Margie Orford, executive vice-president of South African PEN, ‘will make it both difficult and dangerous for writers and journalists to do their work. The bill contains extreme penalties – up to 25 years in prison – for anyone who holds or publishes classified information. This has grave implications for writers and journalists, as much as it does for social justice activists and ordinary citizens, because of the absence of a public interest defence clause. The powers of classification remain too broad. We are deeply concerned that this bill will be used to cover up corruption and abuses of power, both of which are rife in South Africa, and that critical voices will once more be targeted and silenced.’

The Protection of Information bill, popularly called the Secrecy Bill, would eliminate whistleblower protections, force journalists to reveal their sources, and criminalize the withholding of classified information. The bill does not allow for a “public interest defence,” meaning that journalists would not be protected for leaking information even when exposing government corruption or misconduct. Sentences may be as high as 25 years. The bill was introduced in 2008 and has met with strong civil society and media opposition. Pressure from Sanef (SA National Editors’ Forum), PMSA (Print Media South Africa), lawyers, other civil society organizations and the Right2Know campaign—a broad coalition of organizations—forced the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to withdraw earlier texts and narrow the scope of “organs of state” that could classify information. However, the most restrictive provisions remain in place.

Last week, the ANC leaked that it would reintroduce the bill in parliament, despite assurances that the party would seek civil society input. The bill was quickly debated and passed by a significant margin. It now has to pass through the National Council of Provinces, among other procedures, and be signed into law by President Zuma.

‘Respect for freedom of expression and a free press makes for a stronger society and often improves the work of government,’ said Laura McVeigh, director of PEN International. ‘This secrecy bill denies that freedom of expression and is a step backwards for South Africa.’

PEN International celebrates literature and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 1921, our global community of writers now comprises 144 Centres spanning more than 100 countries. Our programmes, campaigns, events and publications connect writers and readers for global solidarity and cooperation. PEN International is a non-political organization and holds consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO.

For more information contact:
Margie Orford of South African PEN
t. +27 21 465 2496
m. +27 83 556 9168