As Parliament deals with the controversies surrounding the proposed Protection of State Information Bill, it is important for South African citizens to review and understand their constitutional rights. The Protection of Information Bill is a bill would give the government the right to keep certain information private in order to protect the state’s security. The type of information a government may want to keep secret could include the South African National Defense Force’s security strategies or information about foreign governments. However, the Protection of State Information bill is controversial because many people believe that the bill would give the government too much power to keep secrets from the people.
In order to participate in this debate, it is important to review the parts of the constitution which relate to the proposed law. In particular the Protection of State Information Bill calls into question the constitutional rights of Access to Information and the Freedom of Expression.
Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution contains the Bill of Rights, which is a list of the rights the constitution guarantees to all South Africans. One of these rights is Access to Information:
32. Access to information
1. Everyone has the right of access to
a. any information held by the state; and
b. any information that is held by another person and that is required for the excercise or protection of any rights.
2. National legislation must be enacted to give effect to this right and may provide for reasonable measures to alleviate the administrative and financial burden on the state.
So, according to the constitution, South Africans have a right to access state information, including information about national security. Since there are occasions when some information should be kept a secret in order to protect the public, the Parliament has been trying to pass a law which would allow the state to keep some information secret. But because the right to access information is part of the constitution, it is difficult to find a balance between protecting security and giving the citizens their rights to access information.
The other right that related to the Protection of State Information bill is the right to Freedom of Expression:
16. Freedom of Expression
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes
a. freedom of the press and other media;
b. freedom to recieve or impart information or ideas;
c. freedom of artistic creativity; and
d. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
2. The right in subsection (1) does not extend to
a. propoganda for war;
b. incitement of imminent violence; or
c. advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.
So this section is meant to protect citizens’ right express themselves without fear. Since the Protection of State Information bill would allow the government to declare certain information secret, this secret information would then be illegal for someone to discuss with the public. For example, if the government decided a piece of information was a secret but a journalist somehow found out about this secret, it would be illegal for this journalist to share the information with the public. Situations like this would limit people’s freedom of expression. Many people argue that this could become a major problem because giving the government the right to decide which information is a secret gives them too much power over the public.
To see a copy of the proposed Protection of State Information Bill, follow this link:
To learn more about the debate over the proposed law, follow this link:
To read the South African Constitution, follow this link:
Or for the Bill of Rights: