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South Africa's assembly passes 'secrecy bill,' stirring journalists' fears

Journalists and civic groups warn that the Protection of Information or 'secrecy bill,' will criminalize investigative journalism. The government says it will bolster South Africa's national security.

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South Africa’s National Assembly passed a bill on Tuesday that would “protect” state information and potentially impose 25-year criminal sentences on journalists who publish or possess state documents that the South African government deems to be secret.

The ruling African National Congress hailed the bill as a necessary measure to protect South Africa’s national security information from foreign spies. But news organizations and civil society groups saw the bill’s passage as a dangerous weakening of the hard-fought freedoms South Africans gained after the fall of the apartheid government.

During legislative debate, opposition Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said, "If passed, this bill will unstitch the very fabric of our constitution. It will criminalize the freedoms that so many of our people fought for."

The Protection of Information bill still has one final step before becoming law – it must also pass in South Africa’s upper house, the National Council of Provinces, which the ANC also controls. But it has already begun to reverberate in the political consciousness of many South Africans.

Former Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the bill “insulting” to ordinary South Africans. Nelson Mandela’s office also issued a statement voicing concerns about aspects of the bill. Even the mere debate over a protection of information bill prompted the American think tank Freedom House to downgrade South Africa’s ranking to “partly free” earlier this year.

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