The Protection of Information Bill, currently before parliament, has been the focus of intense debate and the source of deepening tension between government and civil society since it was first introduced in 2008.
Civil society and legal experts recognise that government has made strides in improving the piece of legislation, also known as the Secrecy Bill, but the 2012 draft still has a number of loopholes that continue to cause major concern.
In particular, the Bill as currently formulated, leaves poor and marginalised communities vulnerable in the context of exposing corruption.
These issues were fiercely discussed at the Right2Know Campaign (R2K) national three-day summit in Johannesburg from 2 to 4 March 2012. R2K is a nationwide coalition of people and organisations opposed to the Bill.
It became obvious during the course of the summit that the right of access to information goes to the heart of the fight against corruption, instilling democratic values of public official accountability and the participation of all in building the society we want.
The current draft leaves whistle-blowers open to prosecution if they reveal what the state terms "classified information".
Moreover, the protection offered to whistle-blowers in the latest draft is vastly insufficient:
For employees in both the public and private sector protection is limited to the Protected Disclosures Act, which is already criticised for its weak protection mechanisms.
There is no protection for the public outside the employer/employee context. This endangers the media or individuals who, for legitimate public interest reasons, would want to blow the whistle on public officials. It could essentially muzzle individuals and communities who want to come forward with information about corruption.
Community representatives at the summit emphasised the need and value for access to information as well as sharing of information.
R2K members added to this by affirming that the right to access information and the right to share information are at the root of struggles of communities in demanding political, social, economic and environmental justice.
Information and knowledge-sharing were sighted as the most vital tools in fighting against corrupt officials who, for example, demand bribery for services and jobs, or illegally sell RDP houses.
Access to information and the ability to share information on corrupt activities is not just a matter for the elite in tender processes and high-stake deals – it affects every echelon of society.
In fact, the Bill is less likely to affect the elite who can afford legal representation and protection.
The Bill may be used, even if it was not intended for this purpose, by public officials to threaten individuals, who have no access to legal resources, with imprisonment.
The current draft could continue to silence communities that lack a permanent platform to voice their concerns. Often, these are the poor and marginalised, and are the most affected by the smallest of amounts changing hands.