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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

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

More