INSTEAD of being delighted, journalists are squealing like stuck pigs because the Protection of State Information Bill, known as the "secrecy bill", was passed by the National Council of Provinces. Why aren’t they delighted? Most journalists salivate with glee at every state intervention. Surely they knew their turn would come. Do they really think journalism is a special case? Of course they do. Their mantra that "people have the right to know" is repeated as if it settles the matter.
But people also have the right to food, clothes, healthcare, insurance, liquor, banking, jobs, cigarettes, energy and much more. By logical extension, the media should demand unregulated retailing, medical schemes, insurance, alcohol, banking, labour, tobacco and electricity with comparable conviction. But they don’t. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, most other rights supersede the right to know. Conspicuous exceptions aside, journalists are typically praise singers for government intervention against everyone else.
The "secrecy bill" will be a blessing in disguise if a relatively trivial erosion of press freedom discourages knee-jerk endorsement of far greater curtailments of everyone else’s freedom. The bill gives the government the right to ban the dissemination of information deemed to threaten national security. There are similar provisions in most democracies. Much more severe measures are commonplace in hundreds of other laws, including ones that enjoy near-universal endorsement by opponents of the "secrecy bill". The Consumer Protection Act curtails the consumer’s right to choose and increases prices. The National Credit Act gives the less creditworthy no options but to turn to costly "loan sharks". The equally popular Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act imposes extreme limits on the right to get and provide financial services. Parliament is applauded by the media for the Financial Services Laws General Amendment Bill. If passed, the right to rapidly evolving innovative insurance contracts will be more curtailed than the right to know. Substantial erosions of freedom are routinely decreed by regulation without even passing through Parliament and without a whisper of concern in the media.
People unfamiliar with the "secrecy bill" might be surprised by how comparatively benign it seems. It trumpets the virtues of access to "state" information, which should be "available and accessible to all persons" unless there are "justified public or private considerations". Access is a "basic human right and promotes human dignity, freedom and the achievement of equality". The exception is "sensitive information, the disclosure of which … could … cause demonstrable harm to national security".
Lay people can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.
According to the Right2Know Campaign, "a whistle-blower, journalist or activist who discloses a classified record with the purpose of revealing corruption or other criminal activity may be prosecuted under the ‘espionage’, ‘receiving state information unlawfully’ or ‘hostile activity’ offences". That’s not within spitting distance of other legislative diarrhoea endorsed by journalists and activists.
Opposition to the "secrecy bill" reflects the curious fact that journalists and academics usually want government control of everyone but themselves. They pose as a special case deserving academic and press freedom, which they use to promote extreme regulation of everyone else, especially consumers, labour and business. Businesspeople are the other way around: most want intervention for themselves and freedom for everyone else. They are a special case deserving government subsidies, contracts, concessions, incentives, deductions and protection, whereas everyone else must face free-market competition without any special privileges.
Unlike people who espouse self-serving freedoms, lovers of liberty espouse freedom for all.
The silver lining of the "secrecy bill" saga may be that it serves as wake-up call for those journalists who have never internalised the immortal observation that freedom is indivisible.
• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.