In Afrikaans we have a striking saying describing rather accurately what the keepers of secrets (yes, the spies and double agents and professional liars in the intelligence agencies) are trying to do with its latest range of advertisements promoting the Secrecy Bill: “Hulle will ons nou wysmaak dat perdedrolle, vye is”. (“Now they want to convince us that horse droppings are really figs.”)
Apart from the fact that the government is not supposed to promote a Bill currently still serving before Parliament and not yet passed into law (as Parliament is currently seized of this matter, and the executive has no truck with the Bill until it is actually passed and becomes law), the advertisements are about as honest and truthful as your average Senior Manager at the Department of Public Works testifying at the Bheki Cele Inquiry.
I focus on the English version, which can be played via YouTube:
The text of the advert is as follows:
Female Voice: “Are you following the whole debate about this new law everyone is talking about? Something about state information?”
Male Voice: “Yes. And I see why government worries. All this stuff about identity theft, people being long dead but collecting pensions, the list is endless.”
Female Voice: “But what about corruption? How will the government deal with that?”
Male Voice: “The bill makes it clear that if people try to cover up corruption they will go to jail for up to 15 years, and whistleblowers will be protected.”
Female Voice: “That’s good. But will we still be able to get the information we need from the government?”
Male Voice: “Yes. Our constitution gives us that right. As for the press, the bill doesn’t suppress press freedom at all. When you want information that is classified, you just have to apply for it. If you are still not happy, you can go to court and the judge will decide if it is in everyone’s interest.”
Female Voice: “Yes, sounds reasonable.”
Male Voice: “The thing is that government has to protect its information from criminals. There are spies out there that want to steal our information to develop their own countries at our expense.”
Female Voice: “I see. I want to familiarise myself with the bill more. There’s so much I didn’t know.”
Male Voice: “Great, ‘cause it’s really important that government protects its information. It is about protecting our country and its hard-won freedom. Ensuring that we all live in peace, security and prosperity.”
The thing is, the Secrecy Bill has absolutely nothing to do with identity theft and neither has it anything to do with people fraudulently collecting pensions if they are not entitled to do so. Although section 8 and 9 of the Secrecy Bill deals with the protection of valuable information (which could include personal information about one’s ID held by the state), and although these sections state that such information warrants “a degree of protection and administrative control and must be handled with due care and only in accordance with authorised procedures”, the Bill does not actually criminalise the selling of your ID by a state official and is in no way dealing with identity theft. What a very small part of the Bill does (about 4 of the more than 50 clauses in the Bill) is that it prohibits any person from unlawfully and intentionally destroying, removing, altering or erasing valuable information.
A state official would therefore be punished in terms of this Bill if he or she deleted your ID information from the government database. What the Bill would not deal with at all is identity theft or pension fraud. The law already punishes fraudulent selling of your ID information to others as well as pension fraud, and this Bill has absolutely nothing to do with that. In other words this advert is deceitful and dishonest. This is perhaps not surprising, as the adverts were cooked up by the very spies who, we are told, we should trust with decisions about the need to classify state documents as secret or top secret. I would not trust these people when they tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow – let alone with these decisions that may well hide serious criminality and corruption. (General Mdluli, are you there?)
Ironically, what the adverts do, is to illustrate beyond all doubt why this Bill is so dangerous. If these people are prepared to deceive the public so blatantly and openly, why would they not lie to us about the existence of wrongly and unlawfully classified documents which we might need to get access to in order to expose corruption or in order to expose the blatant flouting of the law and undermining of our democracy by the intelligence services?
The “safeguards” in the Bill which the advert talks about are therefore illusory. If it is a criminal offense to be in possession of a classified document, and if one tries to get access to a wrongly classified document, the spies will merely claim that the document does not exist, finish en klaar. If one then claims to have seen the document, one will be arrested and charged for possessing a classified document and to admitting to having committed a crime and one could be sentenced to a long period in jail for possessing even an illegally classified document.
It is true that section 43 of the Bill states that a person who is protected by the Protected Disclosures Act may disclose documents despite any provisions in the Bill, which means that a very brave (some would say very stupid) state employee who discovers documents demonstrating criminal activity or corruption by the intelligence services, may leak such documents to, say, the Public Protector.
What the advert does not say is that the Public Protector will then immediately have to take the leaked documents showing serious criminal activity to the nearest Police Station where one of Richard Mdluli’s cronies will be able to receive the document and “deal” with it to protect the intelligence services and those exposed as criminals or crooks in the documents. The Public Protector can then try and get access to the document via various means and after several years – and assuming rather optimistically – that the document had not been “lost” (in other words, destroyed), she might finally get access to that document – long after the crime was committed and the cover up effectively instituted, the witnesses “disappeared” or intimidated into silence or packed off to Tjikitjikistan as the undersecretary of culture.
Moreover, the advert seems to suggest that all active citizens are really no more than potential criminals, suggesting how the paranoid spies view us ordinary citizens. It says that the state has to protect its information from criminals, but it is exactly the kinds of information that we need as citizens that we will be “protected” from accessing. We will not ever again be able to know that intelligence services had concocted another Browse Mole Report to discredit the enemies of the sitting President. We will not ever again be able to know that the spies had taped telephone conversations between politicians or between NPA members. We will not know that senior ANC leaders have been spied on by the intelligence services because the President thought that these leaders might pose a threat to his political ambitions.
Of course, the adverts also display the kind of paranoia that is familiar to students of any fascist police state. Hence it suggests that we need to protect state secrets because if any of these secrets held by the state are ever released, our very freedom (the freedom curtailed by this Bill) will be threatened. Now, I for one cannot imagine what secrets the spies are keeping that are so earthshattering that it would threaten the very life of our nation and our Constitution if it were to be made public. Could it be information about financial donations made by foreign dictators to the President or the governing party? Information about the sex-lives of politicians illegally spied upon by the intelligence services on instructions from the President? Maybe there are documents proving that our spies are plotting to assassinate the President of the United States, which, if revealed, could lead to a US military invasion.
But I doubt that any of these documents exist and even if they did, we will be protected by its disclosure (and disclosure of the unlawful actions by the intelligence services who might have compiled these documents illegally), not by keeping them secret.
This Bill is about protecting the intelligence services and drawing a veil of secrecy over their often unlawful activities in order to enhance the powers of the spies, create a police state within a state and protect the leadership of the incumbent faction inside the ANC from embarrassment and from being ousted in quasi-democratic party elections. It is not about freedom but un-freedom, not about democracy but a threat to our democracy.
If you believe otherwise, I am sure you will also believe me when I say that you should please send me all your banking details (including password) immediately so that I can transfer a few million dollars into your account, which I will do because I need your assistance with transferring fabulous amounts of money into South Africa.