The ruling African National Congress pushed a secrecy law through Parliament on Tuesday over the objections of Nobel laureates, opposition politicians and editors who complained that it will have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and investigative journalism in a country rife with corruption.
Critics said the law, which makes it illegal to reveal state secrets, lacks a provision allowing a legal defense for acting in the public interest by exposing criminality, corruption or incompetence.
Instead, anyone revealing a state secret faces up to 25 years in jail.
The bill passed by a vote of 229 to 107, reflecting the ANC’s huge parliamentary majority. Opponents included black nationalist politicians, business and church leaders, and a group known as R2K, or Right to Know, which was formed to oppose the bill.
Activists wore black Tuesday to protest the vote.
Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said Monday that the legislation was an insult to South Africans. Nadine Gordimer, a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, was another critic of the law.
Jay Naidoo, a former minister in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet, said he was disturbed by the “battering ram” approach used by ruling party lawmakers.
Mandela’s foundation said that problems in the bill were not difficult to resolve. It said the bill should focus on whether any harm was done by disclosure of a secret.
The foundation also called for moves to narrow the grounds on which information could be classified as a state secret. Information should not be classified as secret if public interest outweighed the possible damage to state security by disclosure, it said.
Naidoo told South African media that the struggle against apartheid was also a struggle for all people to have a voice, a principle that shouldn’t be betrayed.
The ANC argued that it had to update apartheid-era laws on state secrecy and rejected criticism that the law it passed was little better than that of the white supremacists. It said the law needed to be updated to protect state security and deter foreign spies.
The ruling party backed down on some of the law’s original provisions, including one that allowed hundreds of government agencies to classify information as a state secret. Under the law passed Tuesday, only state security agencies can do so.
Critics are concerned that officials will abuse that limitation. They indicated they would challenge the law in South Africa’s Constitutional Court.
Amnesty International said the bill prevented journalists and others from exposing corruption.
“Today is a dark day for freedom of expression in South Africa. This fatally flawed bill, which is totally at odds with the South African Constitution, takes us right back to the apartheid-era restrictions on free speech,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Africa.
In recent years, investigative journalists frequently have had to go to court as the ANC or officials sought to block reports.
The most recent case occurred Friday, when the Mail and Guardian, a prominent newspaper specializing in investigative reports and exposes of corruption, complained about pressure it said prevented it from publishing an article about ANC stalwart Mac Maharaj, who is a spokesman for President Jacob Zuma.
According to the paper, Maharaj threatened criminal prosecution if the newspaper published its report. It ran an article with large portions blacked out. On the front page, it ran a photograph of Maharaj with the words, “Censored. We cannot bring you this story in full due to a threat of criminal prosecution.”
Two days later another newspaper, the Sunday Times, published a similar article citing allegations that Maharaj accepted bribes from a French arms company. Maharaj denied the allegations.