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South Africa's ruling ANC passes controversial secrecy law

November 22, 2011 | 10:48 am


REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- South Africa’s ruling African National Congress government overwhelmingly passed a secrecy law Tuesday, ignoring months of protests from activists and editors and criticism from two Nobel laureates.

Critics said the law, which makes it illegal to reveal state secrets, will have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and investigative journalism. Their main complaint is that the measure doesn't allow a legal defense for acting in the public interest in exposing a secret, for example by revealing criminality, corruption or incompetence on the part of officials or the government.

Instead, anyone revealing a state secret faces up to 25 years in jail.

Activists supporting transparency and freer access to government information wore black Tuesday, in protest against the vote by the ANC-dominated parliament.

The ANC argued it had to update apartheid-era laws on state secrecy and rejected criticisms that its own measure was not much better than that of the white supremacists.

Desmond Tutu, retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, called the law an insult to South Africans that would make the state accountable only to the state.

Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel Literature Prize laureate, also criticized the law.

A onetime minister in former President Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet, Jay Naidoo, said he was disturbed by the “battering ram” approach by ruling party lawmakers. He told South African media that the struggle against apartheid was a struggle for all people to have a voice, a principle that shouldn’t be betrayed.

Mandela's foundation said the law's shortcomings were not difficult to resolve. It said the bill should focus on whether any harm was done through releasing a secret, not merely the fact that secret information was released.

The foundation also called for moves to narrow the grounds on which information could be classified as a state secret. Information should not be classified secret if the public interest outweighed the possible damage to state security, it said.

Opponents of the law have foreshadowed a legal challenge in the constitutional court, the country's highest court on constitutional issues.


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-- Robyn Dixon

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Photo: Retired archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu said the new state secrecy law was an insult to South Africans and would make the state accountable only to the state. Credit: Mark Wessels / Reuters