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South Africa moves ahead with bill to limit freedom of information

The ANC's parliamentary committee has opted to vote clause-by-clause on the Protection of Information bill, which many believe would criminalize investigative journalism. Will citizens' right to know be compromised?

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By speeding up the vote on a controversial Protection of Information bill this week, South Africa’s ruling party may be close to dramatically restricting the rights of citizens to monitor the actions of their government officials.

As currently written, the “Protection of Information” bill would grant the government broad powers to classify documents for reasons ranging from national security to protection of state possessions: everything from top-secret weapons plans for the South African National Defense Forces to the allotments of elephant feed at the Johannesburg Zoo. The bill does specifically forbid the classification of documents that are merely embarrassing or that reveal incompetence, but it also authorizes prosecution of journalists found in possession of documents labeled as “secret,” and media groups argue that this effectively makes investigative journalism illegal.

“The governing party has decided to set aside its earlier willingness to negotiate with other parties and civil society and now seem determined to ram this through parliament,” says Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail and Guardian, a Johannesburg-based investigative weekly. “This bill will criminalize investigative journalism and civic activism.”

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