Finding the courage to combat the Secrecy Bill

I have often wondered what kind of citizen I would have been had I lived in the apartheid era. Would I have been complacent, bowing to oppressive authority, a "yes baas" house n***er? Or would I have had the courage to stand up for equality, for what was good, right and just? The shame of being the former and the risk of being the latter scared me into a false sense of gratitude for having grown up in a democratic South Africa.

At the recent World Press Freedom Day commemoration at the Durban University of Technology, the head of the journalism programme, Dr Rene Smith, expressed her shock at how afraid her students are to stand up for the truth. She said journalists, as members of society have a duty and should not be afraid to speak the truth, to go to jail for the truth and even to die for the truth.

In 2012, on the heels of the 18th celebration of freedom in South Africa, as one of her students, a journalist and a citizen, I asked myself if I was prepared to take risks for the truth - to use my voice as a journalist and member of society to tell the truth. One would have thought that in a democracy, where freedom of expression and the right to access information are guaranteed by the supreme law of the land, these questions would be redundant. But is this the democratic South Africa so many fought and died for? Are we truly living in a free, fair and open society?

Not if the Protection of State Information Bill is passed in its current form. The so-called Secrecy Bill has galvanised concern about the direction in which our democracy is headed. This was compounded by other measures such as the General Laws Amendment Bill - otherwise known as the Spy Bill - which would further entrench the rot in our state security bodies and erode public scrutiny of those entrusted with the security of the nation. The Spy Bill would also expand government's powers to monitor people's phone calls, emails and social media.

Both these bills have been seen as a symbol of the rise of an unaccountable and secretive securocratic elite, represented by the likes of re-instated police spy boss Richard Mdluli, who are taking hold of our democracy and shutting out the South African public. However, these bills also promise new challenges for the emerging generation of journalists like me. The Secrecy Bill's harsh jail sentences and lack of whistle-blower protection will target journalists and their sources, leading to self-censorship out of fear. In a country where intimidation, harassment, jail and even death were used to muzzle those calling for equality, one would think these scare tactics were a thing of the past.

Although the ruling party has made some concessions to try to appease the protestors gathering outside the gates of Parliament, it is still far from meeting the requirements of the constitution; of an open democracy where information flows freely. The bill still promises to punish those who expose information being hidden by the government, even when doing so would be the right thing to do - edging us towards a society of secrets we thought we'd left behind.

The committee of 15 parliamentarians charged with finalising the Secrecy Bill are meeting to deliberate this week and the people of South Africa will be watching closely. We have come from every corner of society to say no to the draconian provisions of this bill. We're mobilising in town halls, in hostels, in leafy suburbs and informal settlements, on shop floors and university campuses, to ensure that our right to know prevails. We will not tolerate a Bill that infringes on it.

We applaud all those who have stood up to join us. The safeguarding of these rights is the duty of the ordinary people of South Africa. The unity of individuals and organizations from all over the country is the strength of the Right2Know campaign - all in the hope of awakening our people to the backward slide our democracy is taking, to revive in our people a proactive and meaningful participation in the preservation and strengthening of our rights, making the constitution a truly living document.

And in the coming days, if the NCOP moves to pass the Secrecy Bill into law, it will be up to every one of us to stand up and shout. Find out more about the Secrecy Bill and Spy Bill, and tell others. Get on Facebook, Twitter and MXit and tell others. Join us at our marches and rallies. And be prepared when the moment comes, to speak the truth no matter what the consequences.

In other words, get informed, get involved, and speak out. Because at the end of the day it is up to each of us to decide what kind of citizen we are going to be.

Nosipho Mngoma is a journalism student at Durban University of Technology and one of the coordinators of Right2Know KZN.

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