The ever-increasing global rebellion against secrecy

Julie Reid: “We need to engage in a fight to defend our right to information and our right to say what we like.”

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Oudtshoorn. 27 September 2012. 09h15.

A furore has developed in South Africa in recent years over citizens’ access to information. The Protection of State Information Bill served as the catalyst for this, but the debate has turned to broader concerns over a general preference for secrecy over transparency on the part of government, access to information and the freedom of expression.

Many South Africans, especially the younger ones, are unaccustomed to the notion that as a people we need to engage in a fight to defend our right to information and our right to say what we like. There is a collective pinch-me-so-that-I-can-wake-up-from-this-bad-dream feeling, and I hear them often: comments questioning how it is possible that we should even need to have these conversations in our democracy. This is not what was fought for in the struggle, after all. But this coming Friday marks a day that at very least serves as a reminder that in this contest, we are not alone.

A decade ago, on 28 September in 2002, a collection of representatives from freedom of information organisations from around the globe gathered in Sofia, Bulgaria. They quickly recognised that although their socio-political contexts may have differed, difficulty in securing an environment where open access to information was the norm was a problem in a number of countries around the world. They established the Freedom of Information Advocates (FOA) Network, a global coalition to promote open access to information in the interest of promoting transparent and accountable governments. They also established 28 September as International Right to Know Day, a day marked to raise global awareness of the importance of access to information as a fundamental human right, allowing most especially for active citizen participation in government.

Things have become even more interesting over the last two years on the global fight-for-information front. In South Africa, the Right2Know Campaign gathered speed and support, and accomplished a surprising degree of mobilisation against the Secrecy Bill from all sectors of society. The campaign drew widespread support quickly because of the efficacy of its simple message: We have a right to know and a right to speak.

Making international news, Julian Assange embarrassed a number of governments in 2010 by dumping a load of confidential documents on the WikiLeaks website. (One may have thought Assange’s celebrity would have been assuaged by the rape and molestation charges he faces in Sweden, and which he seems to be going to ludicrous attempts to avoid answering, but alas he continues to command a loyal and almost cultish following as the poster boy for whistleblowers.) The significance and implications (or non-implications) of the information released by WikiLeaks in this equation is immaterial. What is important is only that is was released, and released against the will and without the permission of various governments. This event fed into the collective zeitgeist of freedom of information activists and others around the world, who increasingly began to appreciate the manner in which Assange gave the middle finger to authorities who would rather have kept certain information under wraps.

Then last year, on  19 September, two hugely significant events regarding freedom of information activism happen within a few blocks of one another in Cape Town. At the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) representatives of civil society organisations, global freedom of information advocates, journalists and academics adopted the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) at the closing session of the Pan African Platform on Access to Information (http://www.pacaia.org/) conference. This declaration recognised access to information as a fundamental right and called on all governments, particularly African ones, to adopt or revise laws in order to ensure the successful implementation of access to information. The document pointed out that by 2011 the number of African countries which had adopted access to information legislation stood at only 10.

I arrived late at this closing session (but just in time to sign the declaration) because I had just rushed to the CTICC from a packed out press conference at the Parliament Building. After months of deliberations over the Protection of State Information Bill in Parliamentary committee, increasing pressure from critics and civil society and a full-scale march on Parliament by the Right2Know Campaign just two days before, the ANC caucus announced it would stall the bill, due to be voted on by the National Assembly the following day, to allow for “further consultations”. It was a surprise move, and one that signalled that the vehement opposition to this particular piece of legislation had given at least a few people in the ruling party some serious jitters.

The bill did go to the National Assembly a few months later and was then referred to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). But while most expected the NCOP to rubber-stamp the bill without too much fanfare, the discussions instead resulted in even further concessions from the ANC. Critics may tell you that even today it is not a great bill, but the ANC’s and Parliament’s sometimes nervous and sometimes blatantly arrogant treatment of this bill has revealed something significant. At least some people within the ruling party and the legislature are sensitive to the fact that many South Africans are not enamoured with the idea of a government that wilfully hides information that should rightfully be public.

For freedom of information activists, it is important to know that some in government are aware of this. And on the afternoon of 19 September 2011, in a cramped and crowded press conference, we got whiff of it for the first time.

Academic and civil society conference circuits are  dominated by conferences convened around themes of access to information, the freedom of the press and/or freedom of expression and freedom of the Internet as a conduit for the former two themes. Governments around the world, nervous of what can be leaked, hacked or exposed on the Internet, are moving to monitor, regulate and clamp down on Internet freedoms.

The freedom of access and the exchange of information, which has been mostly taken for granted since the Internet’s inception, is now a topic of concern as limits have begun to appear in various places. Open access to information has fast become one of the defining causes of the current generation, and this global trend seems to be gaining momentum. The X and Y generations, having grown up in a digital age and witnessed the rapid expansion of the Internet, are now accustomed and conditioned to having the information that they want at their fingertips. Telling these generations that authorities now wish to clamp down on access to information, or even on Internet freedoms, is sacrilege because it undermines some of their most formative experiences of the world.

When a generation has grown up with a particular freedom, whether freedom to access information or anything else, you cannot expect to remove that freedom without a rebellion.

While so many citizens around the world feel aggrieved in that they are denied access to government information in one way or another, one may become disheartened at the enormity of the predicament. It would be easy too to shrug this off as the ancient and basic formula of the nature of human power relations, that those in power do what they can to remain in power, whether through force, simple government spin-doctoring or concealing “sensitive” information from citizens. For a literary experience of this vision of hopelessness, read George Orwell’s novel 1984.

Is it even possible to imagine a situation in which a government is almost always open and transparent, where government information is freely accessible to anyone who asks for it, and where secrecy is an utmost exception instead of being either an official or un-official norm? It is a good question.

When I visited Stockholm last year I spent some time with a journalist there who questioned me deeply on the current debates around access to information and freedom of expression in South Africa. As I began to explain some of the more complicated details of the debates I could tell she was confused. I paused and she expressed her dismay. From our conversation it occurred to me that our situation was simply unfathomable to her because of her own context: in Sweden (whether accurately or inaccurately) the idea of a non-transparent government is literally a foreign concept to most people. Where a lack of corruption and transparency seem to be good bed mates, Sweden rates among the top five countries in the world on Transparency International’s 2011 Corruptions Perceptions Index, along with Finland, Denmark, Norway and New Zealand. So, maybe, it is possible.

When it comes to considering of how much information should be made available to citizens, governments have some options. They can follow the same route as countries like Sweden and embrace citizen participation in governance and transparency, and resultantly disenable corruption. They can invent reasons for keeping information secret, which (if cleverly done) usually involves making the citizenry afraid of some mythical foreign enemy and providing justifications of “national security”. Maybe this was the ANC’s problem all along: South Africans aren’t afraid enough of foreign spies/invaders to buy the whole “national security” selling point on the Secrecy Bill.

If governments don’t care for meaningful citizen participation in governance and are arrogant enough to be unconcerned with looking legitimate, a third (and most scary) option arises: put the state boot of oppression on the necks of the people who demand their right to know.

Dr Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at the Unisa.

Published in the Daily Maverick

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