from The New York Times:
JOHANNESBURG — Brushing aside protests by press-freedom advocates and heroes of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, Parliament overwhelmingly passed a contentious bill on Tuesday that will severely restrict the ability of journalists to report any information deemed to be a government secret.
The legislation, which still must undergo further steps to become law, would make it a crime, punishable by lengthy prison terms, to disseminate anything that any state agency regards as classified. Critics have called the legislation a throwback to the apartheid regime’s harsh repression and say it is meant to protect corrupt officials from press scrutiny.
Anger over the legislation was embodied by the presentation of an article published last week in The Mail & Guardian, a major weekly newspaper here, about Mac Maharaj, the spokesman for President Jacob Zuma. Most of the text had been blacked out. This outcome, the paper’s editor said, was what loomed for South Africa’s press if the legislation became law.
The Protection of Information Bill, as the legislation is called, must still clear a national council of provinces before it takes effect. Critics have said they will challenge it in South Africa’s constitutional court.
“The bill in its current form does take us back to pre-1994,” said Elston Sippie, executive director of the country’s Freedom of Expression Institute, referring to the year South Africa became a democracy. “I do think it is a setback in that we fought hard and long to get our bill of rights accepted amongst all South Africans. And it is that bill of rights that is now under threat.”
The onerous implications have some members of the media here feeling under more pressure than at any time since the fall of apartheid.
On both sides of the debate, people have said the battle between the press and the ruling party speaks to the fact that this country, less than two decades after the fall of apartheid, is still figuring out just how to get democracy right.
“Like the United States, it took many, many decades to have your Constitution developed to where it is now,” said Moegsien Williams, the editor of The Star, a daily newspaper based here. “We are now in that kind of process where we’re trying to kind of live up to and entrench the Bill of Rights.”
The news media and civil rights groups had fought unsuccessfully to get the ruling party, the African National Congress, to include an exception in the law that would allow for the revelation of classified information if it were in the public interest.
On Tuesday, protesters urged people to wear black, calling the day “Black Tuesday,” evoking memories of a similarly titled press crackdown in the 1970s under white rule. Demonstrators picketed outside of Parliament in Cape Town and in front of A.N.C. headquarters here.
Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate and leading figure in the fight to end white-minority domination, said it was “insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism.”
The office of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president and emblem of the struggle for democracy, said the legislation was “not yet at a point where it can be said to have met” constitutional standards.
But A.N.C. members stood firm in their support of the legislation, arguing it was repealing a harsher 1982 protection of information law.
“It is our experience that most opponents of this bill have not actually read this bill,” said Luwellyn Tyrone Landers, an A.N.C. parliamentary member. “Today’s events confirm that view.”
The bill will make it a crime punishable by 5 to 25 years in prison for anyone to reveal information that the state labels classified.
Journalists also have expressed concern about a looming proposal by the A.N.C. to create a tribunal that would hear and adjudicate citizen complaints against media outlets over issues of fairness and accuracy.
“These are the toughest times,” said Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press, a weekly newspaper here. “Across the board, I think you see attempts to curtail media freedom and free expression.”
Ms. Haffajee said she believed that the legislation reflected the vulnerabilities felt by the A.N.C., which has been the dominant party in South African politics since 1994. It is instinctive, she said, “for people in power to attempt to stifle the media when it makes exposures that are uncomfortable.”
But the protection bill “is not about suppressing the media or corruption,” Siyabonga Cwele, the minister of state security, said through an e-mailed statement from his spokesman, Brian Dube.
“The South African government is clear on the role of the media in our democracy, and our Constitution provides expressly for freedom of expression,” the statement continued. It added that the bill sought to balance “the right to access to information on the one hand, and the critical issues of national security.”
In a bluntly worded report released last year, a media watchdog established by Parliament and led by an A.N.C. member suggested that the media needed greater regulation.
“Freedom of expression needs to be defended, but freedom of expression can also be a refuge for journalist scoundrels, to hide mediocrity and glorify truly unprofessional conduct,” the report read.
The conflict between Mr. Maharaj and The Mail & Guardian came to a head when the paper told him it was publishing information from a confidential interview that Mr. Maharaj had with corruption investigators almost a decade ago. The information proved that Mr. Maharaj had lied to investigators, who were examining allegations of corrupt payments made to Mr. Zuma, who was then a high-ranking official, during a major arms deal in the late 1990s, said Nic Dawes, the paper’s editor in chief.
But under a little-known South African law, it would have been illegal for anyone to reveal the contents of Mr. Maharaj’s statements to investigators because they were made during a process in which he had to waive his right to remain silent. Even though the paper withheld the statements, Mr. Maharaj filed a criminal complaint, saying that it had intended to publish the information.
Mr. Maharaj said the media could not hold freedom of the press above his individual rights.
“There’s no single right that stands in a hierarchy,” he said. “It’s a balancing of those rights, and the process of building a democracy, is an ongoing exercise.”
Mr. Maharaj said he believed that The Mail & Guardian was using him as political football to raise opposition to the protection bill.
Indeed, the day before the blacked-out paper was published, Mr. Dawes posted a photo of the newspaper page on his Twitter feed with the note “A glimpse of life under #secrecybill.”
Mr. Dawes also posted a copy of The Weekly Mail, the Mail & Guardian’s former name, from 1986 in which lines of an article were blacked out because of government censorship. It was routine practice in those days, Mr. Dawes said.
“For all of the problems that we have now, we still live in a democracy now and we didn’t then,” he said. “But you can’t avoid the kind of awful analogy that arises in these circumstances.”