Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

OGP Diplomacy and South Africa’s Secrecy Law

BY David Eaves | Wednesday, June 20 2012

Open Government Partnership member South Africa has proposed a bill that would make it illegal to publish or even possess leaked government documents, an early test of the partnership's ability to set new international norms for transparency and open government.

I’ve heard from multiple sources that several of the members – including the United States – have been encouraging South Africa to reform the proposed bill. While most of this pressure has been private there have been places where the discussion has spilled into the open. For example, several countries – both OGP members and non-OGP members – used the UN Human Rights Commission’s periodic review process to publicly raise concerns about the proposed bill. As reported by the South Africa Daily News:

Sweden and the Czech Republic called for a review of the present state information bill while, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the US raised serious concerns about the implications of the bill for freedom of speech. Germany called for the “abrogation” of the bill.

“We are concerned the bill would have a considerable dampening affect on the freedom of the press,” said the US delegation.

The bill, which has not been voted into law, at best appears to violate the spirit of the Open Government Partnership. The OGP seeks “more transparent, effective and accountable governments -- with institutions that empower citizens and are responsive to their aspirations." Making the situation even more complicated is that South Africa sits on the OGP’s steering committee and therefore occupies a leadership role within the 55 country partnership. Such a controversial step from a leading country, coming as countries like Russia come onboard, could be damage the organization's legitimacy. The South African bill also sits in stark contrast to Brazil's recent access to information law, which includes a number of provisions - including on open data - that recognize how technology is transforming the way information is increasingly being shared. Indeed, clauses 15 and 44 of the proposed bill make merely possessing a classified document a crime creating the possibility that a simple, but widely distributed email containing classified information could transform hundreds of citizens into felons with the click of a mouse.

Generally, states are careful about commenting on the internal affairs of other states. The U.N. forum — where countries air their concerns openly — is relatively rare. Part of this is because meddling can create serious backlashes; consider, for example, the U.S.’s involvement in Spain’s copyright legislation. But it can also prompt uncomfortable comparisons. The Canadian government recently experienced a catastrophic failure of its own Crime Bill, which had online monitoring provisions in it which made many in the public uncomfortable, and the United States has seen large numbers of previously public documents retroactively made secret. Asking too many questions abroad might cause ones own citizens to ask similar questions at home.

In the end, nothing can replace a vibrant domestic civil society. In South Africa, elements of civil society continue to mobilize against the bill. But it would appear that both quietly and publicly the OGP may be having a helpful impact. The OGP creates a reason to put discussions about openness and transparency on the agenda during bilateral meetings even if, ironically, we the public do not have access to those meetings. This can have a material impact on domestic politics, particularly when those bilateral meetings involve major powers. The OGP also provides domestic civil society actors with both a vehicle to draw in embarrassing international attention that can shame a government into rethinking its actions as well as practices from other countries that set an acceptable standard they can demand their government to adhere to. This too should not be shrugged at.

Personal Democracy Media is thankful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

More