Secrecy as a weapon of oppression

Published on Pambazuka, by Pregs Govender, Sept. 22, 2010.

With concerns that a Protection of Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill) before South Africa’s Parliament will create a secret state, Pregs Govender writes that debate needs to interrogate the desire for secrecy against the right to information in a society in which the lack of socio-economic rights diminishes the ability to access political and civil rights and vice versa.

Secrecy has been and remains integral to the oppression of people and to the exploitation of land and mineral resources across the world. Colonisation, genocide, slavery and apartheid were all dependent on secrecy. Those who abuse power depend on secrecy to deny others their rights – within and through states, corporations, religious, traditional, health, educational and media institutions as well as homes and families … // 

… What happens when the poor lose faith in democratic institutions, when their requests are not heeded and their opinions are not taken into account? People know that budgets (from national to local government) reflect policy priorities and choices. They reflect, more than any rhetorical speech, who and what is valued…or not. People want to know the basis for government’s choices. A key factor in many protests is the lack of access to information.

Those protesting over the lack of service delivery see many green, well-watered golf courses in their local municipalities but no houses, toilets, schools, clinics or well-equipped and maintained playgrounds or sports-fields for their children. They ask who is benefiting from million-rand tenders when bridges collapse and children drown. They want to know why the cost of basic food is increasing and why their sick children have to make choices between food and medicine. Striking workers say society’s claim to value their contribution to social reproduction through education and healthcare is not reflected in budget choices.

Ordinary citizens ask who profited from the arms-deals and the building of stadiums. They want to know what economic, trade and finance policies have resulted in them losing their jobs. They ask where are the rights and choices for poor girls trafficked into prostitution. They ask why, in the 21st century, they have no toilets or toilets without walls. They want answers not just on the symptoms of their poverty and lack of socio-economic rights but on the causes of their poverty. Parliament has the power to ensure that local to national government is held to account and that there is not an even greater sense of impunity and disrespect for compliance because of the Protection of Information Bill.

The SAHRC 2010 Parliamentary submission on the Protection of Information Bill critiques the bill from the perspective of the SAHRC’s mandate to promote the right to access to information, the direct opposite of the ‘Secrecy Bill’. Its submission builds on its earlier submissions on bills affecting information, including the 2008 version of this bill, and critiques the lack of harmonisation between information bills. The SAHRC submission concurs with many of the concerns of civil society, especially on the impact on the rights of whistleblowers and journalists. The SAHRC systematic clause by clause submission raises serious questions about matters such as:

‘The ‘Minister’s unfettered powers; the broad definition of national interest (the bill states that “secrecy exists to protect the national interest”); decision-making around categorisation, classification, standards and procedures; the concentration of power in the state over information management and protection of information; the absence of a moderating independent body and the fact that non-disclosure on the basis of commercial or financial interests cannot be over-ridden by the public interest provided for in PAIA.’

Developing a human rights culture requires a transformation of institutions and mindsets. Post-1994, the culture of secrecy continued to characterise government’s most controversial decisions including the adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) economic plan, the arms-deal and the HIV/Aids debacle.

A recent comment by Ronnie Kasrils, the former minister who first introduced the 2008 Protection of Information Bill to deal with existing apartheid-era legislation, critiques the ease and danger of stepping back into old mind-sets. He argues, for example, that the current bill deletes ‘a provision that provided for the automatic declassification (with limited exceptions) of all information classified before 10 May 1994 (i.e. apartheid-era classifications). This reflects an inexplicable desire to maintain apartheid era secrecy’.

The current debate needs to interrogate the desire for secrecy against the right to information in a society in which the lack of socio-economic rights diminishes the ability to access political and civil rights and vice-versa. It is a vicious cycle that the further secrecy of the Protection of Information Bill, will only deepen. The right to access to information that government itself has put in place since 1994 needs to be upheld not undermined. Those who are now entrusted with power and resources need to remain committed to responsive, transparent and accountable government. (full text).

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