State tries to silence ‘truth’ about Tshwane

David Mahlobo takes an oath during his swearing-in ceremony on May 25, 2014. Picture: Gallo Images

The state reportedly tried to quash news of an explosive state security report about threats to the August elections, which will probably revive calls for the Secrecy Bill to be passed.

For the second week running, City Press received a late Saturday night legal threat against an article. Last week it was multimillionaire Robert Gumede, this week it was the State Security Agency.

On its front page on Sunday, the paper revealed that the security agency called City Press at 5pm on Saturday to inform them that the paper was planning to publish “classified information illegally”. An apparently furious Security Minister David Mahlobo later apparently even phoned editor in chief Ferial Haffajee personally to tell her that City Press was “not supposed to have” a report compiled by the national intelligence coordinating committee. By the time he phoned her (9pm), however, the paper’s first edition would already have been printed.

Haffajee apparently told Mahlobo that the work of journalists often involves coming into possession of information they are not “supposed to have”. The reporters in question were Abram Mashego and Poloko Tau. Mashego has become known as a journalist who gains access to highly sensitive information.

This incident will doubtless once again shine a light on long-running efforts by President Jacob Zuma’s government to pass legislation through the Protection of State Information Act that will allow the state to classify exactly this kind of information and criminalise its publication.

The bill, formerly named the Protection of Information Bill and commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill, is a highly controversial piece of proposed legislation that aims to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information, weighing state interests up against transparency and freedom of expression. It will replace the Protection of State Information Act, 1982, which currently regulates these issues.

While critics of the bill have broadly accepted the need to replace the 1982 act, they argue that the new bill does not correctly balance these competing principles, and point to a number of provisions that undermine the right to access information and the rights of whistle-blowers and journalists.

The bill was already passed by the National Assembly on 22 November 2011, with amendments by the National Council of Provinces on 29 November 2012, and the amended bill was approved by the National Assembly on 25 April 2013. In September 2013, Zuma refused to sign the bill into law and instead sent it back to the National Assembly for reconsideration. It remains unclear when the reconsidered bill will be sent back to Zuma, but reports like today’s are likely to hasten the state’s urgency to do so.

The City Press report suggests that South Africa’s intelligence services are concerned that the violence that has been sparked by the ANC’s nominations process has placed free and fair elections at risk. Mahlobo has apparently warned other ministers that elections violence might “delegitimise” the elections, providing electoral contestants with the right to challenge the validity of results if the areas where they are meant to be campaigning are not safe enough to enter.

According to Mahlobo’s report, there was allegedly even a threat to the Union Buildings this week, at the height of the Tshwane violence. They project that the violence will only get worse ahead of August 3.

The paper also wrote about the alleged “mastermind” of the Tshwane violence, George Matjila, who was the focus of the Mail & Guardian’s lead report on Friday. According to unconfirmed WhatsApp messages, the expelled ANC member was the person coordinating the violent campaign against the Tshwane mayoral candidacy of Thoko Didiza. Matjila was expelled for the ANC for supposedly masterminding the violence related to the 2014 disruptions of an ANC Youth League conference in 2014.

Matjia has denied the latest rumours, saying he is being besmirched by his enemies.

In response to all the violence, ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte told City Press in another Sunday report that the party would be reviewing their policies around the selection of candidates, primarily to reach a point where excellent candidates were selected on the basis of their abilities and values, and not necessarily their popularity in the community alone.

She did, however, acknowledge how difficult this might prove to be, as the ANC was “trying to respect the complexities of democracy”.

City Press’ front page said that it had not actually received an interdict from Minister Mahlobo by the time its late edition went to print.

There was much talk around this issue on Twitter on Sunday:

today in print

today in print