[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.
Not enough South Africans understand that the Protection of State Information Bill (also popularly known as the Secrecy Bill) now being considered by the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) is not primarily aimed at muzzling the media. Although in its current form the Bill will have a chilling effect on the media and would probably stop many whistleblowers from leaking sensitive or embarrassing information to the media, the Bill is primarily aimed at shielding the various intelligence agencies and structures from too much scrutiny and at ensuring that the ordinary constitutional checks and balances that apply to other organs of state that exercise public power would not apply to the intelligence services.
Because we get most of our information about the Secrecy Bill from the media, it is not surprising that members of the media have focused on their own short-term interests and have argued (not entirely correctly) that the Bill was primarily aimed at muzzling the press and at hiding corruption. But this view fails to consider the broader context within which the Secrecy Bill is being discussed.
One must recall that this Bill originated with (and was drafted by) members of the intelligence services and is primarily aimed at creating a legal regime that would provide a veil of secrecy behind which our spies would be able to hide. As long as our intelligence services do what they are constitutionally mandated to do and do not abuse their powers, the Bill will, in my opinion, not have as dramatic an effect on the media landscape in South Africa as some commentators have argued.
(Of course, if the Minister of State Security misused this Bill and extended the power of classification to many of the more than 1000 organs of state — as he is empowered to do in terms of the current draft — the Bill may well be used to hide corruption and maladministration on a vast scale, but that was not the primary objective of the Bill.)
Section 199 of the Constitution contains several provisions that signal an understanding on the part of the drafters of the Constitution that security services could easily be misused by the government of the day. Thus it states that the security services must act, and must teach and require their members to act, in accordance with the constitution and the law; that national security must be pursued in compliance with the law, including international law; and that no member of any security service may obey a manifestly illegal order. The security services are obliged to respect constitutional rights and they are prohibited from prejudicing or furthering the interests of political parties.
Dr Laurie Nathan, who has written extensively on the South African Intelligence Services and was also a member of the Ministerial Review Commission on Intelligence (along with Joe Matthews, a former Deputy Minister of Safety and Security, who chaired the body, and Dr Frene Ginwala, the first Speaker of our democratic Parliament), has warned that:
There is ample historical evidence that politicians and intelligence officers can abuse these powers [of intelligence agencies] to infringe rights without good cause, interfere in politics and favour or prejudice a political party or leader, thereby subverting democracy. They can intimidate the government’s opponents, create a climate of fear and manipulate intelligence in order to influence state decision-making and public opinion. Given these dangers, democratic societies are confronted by the challenge of constructing rules and controls that prevent misconduct by the intelligence services without constraining the services to such an extent that they are unable to fulfil their duties. In short, the challenge is to ensure that the intelligence agencies pursue a legitimate mandate in a legitimate manner.
The Review Commission (which reviewed the National Intelligence Agency (NIA); the South African Secret Service (SASS); the National Intelligence Coordinating Committee (NICOC); the National Communications Centre (NCC); the Office for Interception Centres (OIC); and Electronic Communications Security (Pty) Ltd)) reported that the intelligence agencies in South Africa have not fully embraced the constitutional system with its requirements for openness, transparency and accountability and have not always adhered to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and the law.
Although South Africa’s intelligence legislation and governance arrangements have undergone dramatic transformation since the end of apartheid in 1994 and now compare favourably with those in established democracies, there seems to be a disconnect between what the law requires and what happens in practice.
For example the Review Commission found that the Minister of Intelligence has issued secret regulations that are known only to the intelligence community. The intelligence legislation permits the Minister to do this despite the constitution’s clear statement that regulations must be accessible to the public. Similarly, the Constitution provides that the Auditor General’s reports must be submitted to the relevant legislature and must be made public. Nevertheless, the audit reports on the intelligence services are presented only to the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) and are classified.
As the Report points out (and as Dr Nathan has pointed out elsewhere), despite the fact that the Constitution states that national budgets and budgetary processes must promote transparency and accountability, the annual budgets of the intelligence services are secret; they are reviewed by the JSCI but are not presented to Parliament.
By executive decision the members of the intelligence services are excluded from the labour rights in the Bill of Rights, but this limitation of rights is not covered by legislation as required by the constitution. The Review Commission argued that these deviations from the Constitution are unsound and impermissible. This view was shared by the National Treasury with respect to the intelligence budgets; by the Auditor General with respect to the audit reports on the intelligence services; by the Inspector General and the State Law Adviser with respect to labour rights; and by the Inspector General with respect to the use of intrusive measures.
Most seriously, the Review Commission found that intelligence services regularly infringed on the right to privacy through intrusive methods that are unconstitutional. For example, it found that the NCC, which intercepts electronic signals such as cell phone conversations, is engaged in eavesdropping that is unconstitutional and unlawful. This is because the centre fails to comply with the requirements of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act of 2002, which prohibits the interception of communication without judicial authorisation.
It is in this context that the Secrecy Bill must be evaluated. It may be that the Review Commission Report was acted upon decisively and that the culture of secrecy and lawlessness reported on in the Commissions finding have been addressed in a bold and decisive manner. But, given the fact that it is always difficult to change a culture of secrecy that is deeply entrenched, it will not be surprising if the serious problems with the Intelligence Services (which threaten the health of our constitutional democracy) have persisted or have even become worse.
Imagine what would happen if the Intelligence Services tapped your phone (or the phone of any other person considered — rightly or wrongly — to be an “enemy of the state”), if they abducted you (or any other person considered — rightly or wrongly — to be an enemy of the state”) and “rendered you to Pakistan, the USA or Syria to be tortured and maybe killed. What would happen if these institutions with access to mountains of information and the technology and manpower to run disinformation campaigns and terrorise people, embarked on secret projects to destabilise civil society groups, social movements, labour movements or opposition parties who they perceive to be threatening the stability of the state?
If the state were then to be conflated with the government of the day, what will emerge is a national security state in which the normal laws of the country may not apply as strictly to the intelligence community, while its abuse of power and flouting of the law would be difficult if not impossible to expose without facing arrest and eventual imprisonment for between 2 and 25 years. The Secrecy Bill will then become a powerful weapon to protect this national security state and will protect its agents and the institutions who act in such illegal ways from exposure in the media.
When Moloto Mothapo, from the Office of the ANC Chief Whip, wrote late last year that the Secrecy Bill was essentially a security Bill, not a media Bill, “aimed at protecting the national security of the Republic of South Africa”, this reassurance might have been more illusory than most people might have realised.
It is in this context that claims of the security establishment that the Bill is firmly in line with best international practice must be interrogated. During a National Assembly debate on the Bill late last year, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said: “We have looked at international best practices and there is no country which practises such reckless practice.” He said that even Britain’s Official Secrets Act did not include a public interest defence.
Putting aside the fact that — unlike Britain – South Africa has a written Constitution that contains a set of fundamental human rights which can be enforced by our courts, these claims are not as plausible as one might at first believe them to be. For example, those who claim the Bill contains international best practice, might either be unfamiliar with (or might deliberately be misleading the public about) the fact that in 1995 a group of experts in international law, national security, and human rights, the International Centre Against Censorship, in collaboration with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies of the University of the Witwatersrand, adopted the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Johannesburg and that the Bill in no way measure up to these principles.
The Principles have been endorsed by Mr. Abid Hussain, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, in his reports to the 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2001 sessions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and referred to by the Commission in their annual resolutions on freedom of expression every year since 1996.
Principle 15 state that:
No person may be punished on national security grounds for disclosure of information if (1) the disclosure does not actually harm and is not likely to harm a legitimate national security interest, or (2) the public interest in knowing the information outweighs the harm from disclosure.
This principle thus captures the so called public interest defence, something that our politicians say is foreign to international law. This claim clearly is not sustainable. This principle is further supported by a whistle blowers provision in principle 16 which states that “[n]o person may be subjected to any detriment on national security grounds for disclosing information that he or she learned by virtue of government service if the public interest in knowing the information outweighs the harm from disclosure”.
Furthermore, principle 18 states that the “[p]rotection of national security may not be used as a reason to compel a journalist to reveal a confidential source”.
If one reads the Johannesburg Principles and one evaluates the provisions of the Secrecy Bill against these principles then it is clear that the Secrecy Bill does not, as our Minister of Secrecy and other officials claim, comply with international best practice (best practice captured in the Johannesburg Principles).
Even if we had no worries about the possible abuse of the Intelligence Services (which would be naive, even in the most progressive state), the Secrecy Bill should therefore raise serious concerns about the power and influence of the security services and the corruption of the state by the various spy agencies whose job it is to obfuscate, lie and hide information (sometimes for a worthy cause and often for a nefarious cause).
But given the content of the Intelligence Review Report (a report authored by a credible expert and two people intimately connected with the ANC and the government it leads), the fact that our Minister of State Security is so adamant on passing a piece of legislation that almost certainly infringes on the right of access to information and the right of freedom of expression protected in the Constitution, must be truly worrying. And the worry stems less from the narrow concerns raised by the media and more from a broader concern about the securitisation of South Africa’s democracy and the potential devastating effect this may have on social movements and other grassroots democratic forces who might pose a challenge to the entrenched interests of a certain faction of the governing party who controls the state.