The Archbishop of Cape Town has asked South Africa’s parliament to amend a major state security bill in order to protect the “freedom of information” and to preserve “open and transparent government.”
“As the Catholic Church in Cape Town we have the duty to continue opposing this bill, not only as members of civil society, but also because there is a moral imperative to serve the common good,” Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town said Jan. 19.
“This bill does not serve the interests of the nation and can be used to damage our democracy and lead us on the road, once again, to a security state,” he said.
The Protection of State Information Bill has already passed South Africa’s National Assembly and now must go through parliament’s upper chamber, the National Council of Provinces.
Backers of the bill say it is necessary to replace apartheid-era secrets legislation and to shorten the list of those who can classify information. They also say it creates a criminal offense to classify information to avoid embarrassment or cover up wrongdoing.
The archbishop said the bill gives “too much power” to the Minister of State Security and there are no provisions allowing the disclosure of information for which the public has “a right to know.”
He also warned of “severe punitive action” against whistleblowers and journalists who possess or publish material deemed to be classified.
Some violators of the bill could face a sentence of 25 years imprisonment.
Archbishop Breslin argued that the legislation “comprehensively protects the State Security Agency from public scrutiny because it allows the agency itself to decide what it wishes to be kept secret.
“Any illegal activity by the agency could therefore easily be hidden from scrutiny and from the legal process,” he said.
The Catholic Church in Cape Town has hung a banner protesting the bill on the front façade of St. Mary’s Cathedral, which faces the parliament building.
Other opponents of the bill include business leaders, news editors, civil society groups, artists and religious leaders such as retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu.