South African lawmakers are trying to push through severe punishments for those who expose government corruption.
The draconian protection of state information bill now before parliament would impose jail terms of up to 25 years for anyone who leaks or obtains state secrets, even when those secrets are linked to crimes. It also gives the government more power to hide information from the public.
This could undo years of progress toward greater freedom and democracy in South Africa, and would set a terrible precedent for aspiring democracies across the continent. But it's not too late to stop this happening.
Since President Jacob Zuma took office in 2009 the ruling ANC party has adopted a worrying pattern of intolerance and censorship. Last month the party launched a failed bid at the High Court to censor an unflattering portrait of the president. Meanwhile in parliament, prominent members of the ANC are trying to remove the constitutional rule which bans discrimination against gay people.
But this censorship law goes further still. As Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, author of many novels banned under apartheid, told the Guardian recently: “The government is making no attempt to hide the truth that its intention is to aid the cover-up of corruption. What we are doing now is going back to apartheid censorship under a new guise.”
An excuse for bullies
This is bad news not just for South Africans. For years, the country has acted as one of the strongest examples of African democracy – and now its backsliding threatens progress on human rights throughout the region. Badly-needed reforms still hang in the balance in neighbouring Zimbabwe, for example, after more than two years of delay by President Mubabe’s Zanu-PF. The fear is that he and other African leaders will use South Africa's new secrecy laws to justify their own bullying and silencing of critics.
A wide coalition of citizens are campaigners are coming together to fight against the bill. They know that transparency and freedom of speech are fundamental to South Africa’s teenage democracy. But they are up against powerful vested interests, and they urgently need help from the global community.
Take action: Act now, before it's too late. Join Avaaz's call to stop this disastrous secrecy bill.