Secrets in the south

For a nation with a growing international influence, South Africa’s recent behaviour is confusing

The annual UN climate change conference is taking place in Durban until 9 December and South Africa is keen to show the world it can be a leader as well as a listener when it comes to global energy. But it has some rather unseemly domestic problems to attend to first.

The climate change summit may be the present focus for the world’s media in South Africa but another area that has certainly caught the media’s attention is the controversial Protection of State Information Bill. It has just been passed by the lower house of parliament and the president, Jacob Zuma, says the new act is needed to improve the state’s control over national secrets. The opposition, backed by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and hundreds of anxious journalists, is threatening legal action if Mr Zuma signs the bill into law next year. Many reporters are worried because the new legislation would not include a clause of public interest defence to cover exposé stories unpalatable to public figures. Moreover, journalists could be treated as foreign agents if they were found to be in possession of information that the new bill had been able to redefine as a state secret.

On the surface this seems to be a dangerous bill: whistle-blowing journalism is hard enough in South Africa and the content of this law paints the government in a poor light. State regulation and censorship – to whatever degree – of the press is a scary policy and one that South Africa must denounce and dissuade as publicly as possible. In order to be a global leader you have to be able to show you can manage your domestic and regional affairs first. It seems, however, that at the moment the government in Pretoria has taken a step backwards with this recent bill.

It this type of political misjudgment that provokes scorn and criticism on a global stage. Being provocative is no bad thing itself and South Africa must suggest, debate and dispute to maintain its credibility at the BRICS table where it now has a chair. But when you set yourself against a popular tide you risk looking out-of-touch and wooden. One reaction of governments is to brush off the negative coverage, change course and re-position themselves quickly with the current. Another response is to try to cling stubbornly to your original principles.

Gagging the media will receive no applause from Europe or the US. South Africa’s fellow BRICS Brazil and India will be worried but Russia and China have been accused of similar measures. Yet that is no excuse and South Africa must try as hard as possible to distance itself from such ideas so it can honestly show its aims and ambitions reach further than parochial and oppressive attacks on the media at home.

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