We’ve got a president who makes things up, and won’t retract when he’s cornered. This week press secretary Sean Spicer followed the leader. He picked up Trump’s wiretap story and added a new exciting detail: Not only had Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, he might have used British intelligence spies to do the dirty work. The British, of course, went nuts, and national security adviser H. R. McMaster tried to smooth things over. McMaster is new to the job, having succeeded Mike Flynn, who had to resign for lying about his phone conversations. Flynn was not even around long enough for us to find out that he was also a lobbyist for Turkish interests and took $68,000 from various Russian connections.
The right of every person to have access to any information held by the state is guaranteed by section 32 of the Constitution. The Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) gives effect to this right. Unfortunately, many state officials (as well as private bodies) undermine respect for the Rule of Law by refusing to adhere to the provisions of PAIA, either by not responding to requests for access to information at all, or by refusing access to information where this refusal is not clearly justified by the provisions of PAIA.
Most people who request access to information do not have the resources to approach a court to challenge this culture of secrecy which is deeply entrenched in our society (in both public and private institutions). When an individual or institution therefore approaches a court to challenge the denial of access to important information held by the state or a private body, the court should be careful not to bend over backwards to assist state officials in denying access to information, information which is the lifeblood of any democracy.
Unfortunately today a majority of judges of the Constitutional Court handed down a judgment in the case of President of the RSA and Others v Mail & Guardian Media Ltd, in which they came to the assistance of the Presidency who had utterly failed to make out a case for why a report prepared by two judges sent to Zimbabwe by then President Thabo Mbeki to look into that country’s troubled election should not be made public.
This was a close run affair with 5 judges (including an acting judge who might still one day be appointed to the highest court) overturning the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal judgment, and 4 judges supporting a strong dissent. The majority judgment, authored by former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo (and concurred in by Froneman J, Mogoeng J, Mthiyane AJ and Yacoob J), makes all the right noises about the dangers of state secrecy by emphasising the importance of the right of access to information, stating that the importance of this right in a country which is founded on values of accountability, responsiveness and openness, cannot be gainsaid.
It is impossible to hold accountable a government that operates in secrecy. The right of access to information is also crucial to the realisation of other rights in the Bill of Rights. The right to receive or impart information or ideas, for example, is dependent on it. In a democratic society such as our own, the effective exercise of the right to vote also depends on the right of access to information. For without access to information, the ability of citizens to make responsible political decisions and participate meaningfully in public life is undermined.
The majority also correctly points out that PAIA places an evidentiary burden on the party denying access to information to demonstrate that its denial of the information is justified. The Presidency had argued that the denial was justified, first, because the report would reveal information supplied in confidence by or on behalf of another state or an international organisation. This explanation merely recounted the wording of section 41(1)(b)(i). Secondly, the Presidency argued that stated that the record contains an opinion, advice, report or recommendation obtained or prepared for the purpose of assisting to formulate a policy or take a decision in the exercise of a power or performance of a duty conferred or imposed by law. This likewise recounted the wording of section 44(1)(a).
The Presidency failed to produced any plausible evidence by those directly involved in the matter, namely the President (at the time, this was Thabo Mbeki), or the two judges (Justices Moseneke and Khampepe, who both recused themselves from hearing the case), all of which could have confirmed the bold (but unsubstantiated) assertions made by the Presidency about why they were justified in denying access to the report. As an afterthought, so it seems, the Presidency argued that it could not provide a more persuasive justification for its refusal, as section 25(3)(b) and section 77(5)(b) of PAIA provide that a person who refuses access must exclude from the reasons stated “any reference to the content of the record”.
In order to give the Presidency another bite at the cherry to justify that which it had failed to justify before the High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court, the majority relied on section 80 of PAIA which allows a court to call for additional evidence in the form of the document to which access was denied to have a secret “judicial peek” at that document itself. Section 80 allows the court to conduct a secret review of the document to determine whether the justification for the denial of access was valid or not.
The majority warned that courts should exercise their discretion to call for additional evidence in the form of the contested record only where there is “the potential for injustice as a result of the unique constraints placed upon the parties in access to information disputes”. This injustice may arise, said the court, “because either the requester or the holder of information is prevented by factors beyond its control from presenting the evidence necessary to make its case”.
Because the officials in the Presidency who made submission to the court were not directly involved in the commissioning or production of the report, the majority found that they were required to study the report itself and come to a conclusion about whether it should be made public. The state was therefore “hamstrung” from presenting further evidence in support of its claim to the exemptions. The majority therefore found that the High Court and the SCA should have demanded to have a “judicial peek” at the document to decide whether the refusal was justified in terms of the provisions of PAIA relied upon. The majority therefore referred the matter back to the High Court to do just that. This means the process will start afresh – if the Mail & Guardian has sufficient funds to fight the whole battle anew.
As I read the majority judgment, it assumed — without any credible evidence being presented by the Presidency to that effect — that the Presidency was unable to make a proper case for secrecy because its officials could not quote directly from the report. This did not wash with the minority.
The strongly worded minority judgment, authored by Justice Edwin Cameron (Jafta J, Nkabinde J and Van der Westhuizen J concurring), provides cogent arguments for why the Presidency had to hand over the report immediately. The minority argued that the Presidency had failed to justify its refusal of the record under PAIA, and further failed to provide a plausible basis for a plea that the statute made it impossible for it to provide adequate reasons for its refusal.
The Presidency’s information officer had made no reference in his reasons to the provisions of the statute that prohibit a decision-maker from making any reference to the content of the record when giving reasons for a refusal. Moreover, the pivotal submission by Frank Chikane contained no more than “bald assertions” — which did not constitute evidence at all. Chikane did not state why he claimed to have personal knowledge of the issue. Justice Cameron then proceeded to argue as follows:
As the Supreme Court of Appeal pointed out, one can gain personal knowledge of an event in three very different ways: by experiencing it directly; by receiving a report that it happened (which is hearsay); or by deducing from other signs that it took place. Mr Chikane does not tell us in which of these ways he acquired personal knowledge. This leaves a court unable to perform its most elementary function, which is to assess the quality, strength and reliability of his knowledge in determining whether the fact to which he deposes is true. The mere assertion that he has personal knowledge gives no help in that duty. It follows that his assertion is without value as evidence of the fact in issue. …
The Court rightly noted that the Presidency‘s case amounts to “little more than rote recitation of the relevant sections and bald assertions that the report falls within their terms”. The witnesses offered not reasons, but perfunctory conclusions. This, the Court said, provided a stark contrast with the culture of accountability and transparency that our constitutional era promised. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Appeal likened the approach in the affidavits of the Presidency‘s witnesses to that under apartheid, where government officials exercising wide powers were able simply to assert that they had fulfilled the requirements of the statute, without offering any evidential basis for this.
The minority further pointed out that it was inexplicable that neither the President at the time, or any of the judges involved provided evidence that would support the denial of access to the document.
Neither former President Motlanthe nor President Zuma could cast light on the judges‘ mission. President Mbeki could, but there was no affidavit from him. So the question is — why did President Mbeki not testify? Was he asked or not asked? If asked, did he refuse? Or if not asked, why?
Perhaps even more telling was the absence of evidence from the two judges. They, like former President Mbeki, are living and seemingly available. Why did they not testify? Were they asked? If not, why? A simple affidavit from any of them may have put a quick end to the issues.
The Presidency‘s hands were not tied. It could have obtained direct evidence from any one of the three people most intimately involved in the mission. It failed to do so. More even, it failed to explain why.
The minority also cautions against the use of section 80 of PAIA that would allow the court to have a secret “judicial peek” at the document. It should only be as a last resort that judges should demand to have a “judicial peek” at the document to which access is being denied, said the minority. Moreover this section “should not be used to help government make its case when it has failed to discharge the burden the statute rightly places on it”.
There are good reasons for a court to avoid reliance on section 80 to have a secret peek at the document being denied to come to a secret conclusion based on a secret process. Although it might be necessary to do so, the risks inherent in resorting to secret judicial examination are so grave that it should be avoided if at all possible. Quoting from the Supreme Court of Appeal judgment, Cameron pointed out the dangers of the majority’s approach:
Courts earn the trust of the public by conducting their business openly and with reasons for their decisions. I think a court should be hesitant to become a party to secrecy with its potential to dissipate that accumulated store of trust. There will no doubt be cases where a court might properly make use of those powers but they are no substitute for the public body laying a proper basis for its refusal.
Nor should the public ever fear that courts may assist in suppressing information to which the Constitution says they are entitled. To give secret judicial examination of disputed records a central place in deciding claims to exemption, instead of enforcing the burden government rightly bears to justify withholding information, is in my view a grave error.
The minority would therefore have ordered the immediate release of the document as the Presidency had utterly failed to justify it being kept secret.
The two judgments handed down today present starkly different attitudes towards secrecy and the role of the executive in keeping secrets. The majority bent over backwards to find ways of not ordering the immediate release of the report, despite the fact that the executive had utterly failed to make a plausible case for keeping the document secret. The minority looked at the evidence provided by the Presidency, determined that it had not provided any cogent reasons for keeping the report secret and would have ordered its release.
The first judgment can therefore be read as displaying a rather touching (or perhaps naive) trust in the inherent honesty and probity of the executive and its commitment to an open and democratic society based on openness, transparency and accountability. The minority looked at the facts and applied the law as it relates to the facts presented to the court. It took the law at face value and interpreted and applied it in a manner that would inhibit state officials from denying access to important documents and then justifying it by making bald and unsubstantiated assertions of their right to do so.BACK TO TOP