Info is Power: Standing Up for the Right to Know in a Society of Secrets
Every social justice struggle is, in some way or another, a struggle against secrecy. The right to know – that is, to access and share information – is often called an ‘enabling right’, a unifying tool that every social justice struggle needs to hold the powerful to account.
For example, residents of Newfields Village in Cape Town live in ‘low-cost’ housing built by a private company on behalf of government. But the houses are falling apart, the rates are escalating, and there are widespread concerns of mismanagement of funds – to the extent that the company was probed by the Auditor-General’s office in 2010. For nearly a year, residents of Newfields Village have been seeking access to the outcomes of any such investigation, supported by the Right2Know (R2K) campaign, the AEC and lawyers at ODAC. They want to determine whether or not this company is guilty of mismanagement of funds at the same time that it’s trying to evict those who can’t keep up with the rates. To date, despite pickets, press releases and PAIA applications, they have received no official response from the Department of Human Settlements.
In other words, they can’t even get access to information that would confirm whether or not their rights are being violated. The movement for adequate housing is just one of many human rights struggles in South Africa played out against a backdrop of unjustifiable levels of secrecy.
The Right2Know campaign was launched in August 2010 as an alliance of civil society organisations responding to the Protection of State Information Bill (the “Secrecy Bill”). The R2K founding statement has been endorsed by over 400 organisations, and nearly 30 000 people. However, recognising the Secrecy Bill as a symptom of a broader threat to the free flow of information in South Africa, the R2K has resolved to campaign on three legs:
- “Stop the Secrecy Bill”: Ongoing mobilisation and advocacy to amend the problematic provisions of the Protection of State Information Bill – and broader legislative efforts to entrench state secrecy;
- “Ensure Access to Information”: Supporting member organisations and affiliates in their attempts to access existing information that is critical to their broader struggles for social justice, and support and defend whistleblowers who seek to expose information where it is being withheld unjustly;
- “Media freedom for All”: Promoting a free and diverse media sector by monitoring and responding to legislative developments.
This work is carried out through Right2Know’s provincial structures in Gauteng, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, as well as a national working group. These bodies are made up of representatives from participating community groups, social movements, NGOs, and individuals.
By drawing together a broad coalition of civil society organisations, the Right2Know campaign manages a network that is capable of sustained popular education and mass mobilisation, as well as institutional and legal advocacy, and is committed to promote and the free flow of information. In particular, this network aims to popularise access to information as a crucial component of ongoing struggles for socio-economic justice – if a community group or social movement is trying to get access to information and it’s being withheld, the broader coalition will offer support.
A number of new developments may require rapid response from the campaign, such as the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill recently in Parliament poses a significant threat to openness in government and, in conjunction with the Secrecy Bill, represents a trend towards securitisation in government institutions and a closing-off of democratic spaces. R2K is also monitoring proposals for a Media Appeals Tribunal.
Much of the action that drives the Right2Know campaign draws on the existing work of civil society organisations that make up our base. This is focused on promoting people’s rights to access information through capacity-building, advocacy and support:
- Strengthening and deepening popular understandings of the right to information as both a Constitutional right and an inherent human right;
- Highlighting obstacles and threats to the ‘right to know’, in both the public and private sector;
- Responding to the low levels of compliance with the Promotion of Access to Information Act across society, as well as general lack of transparency within many key service delivery bodies – in particular, where public services have been outsourced to private companies;
- Developing strong links with social movements and community organisations that can help establish free expression and access to information as central components to service delivery and the fulfilment of socio-economic justice;
- Mobilising popular support for an independent, unfettered and diverse media sector, including well-funded public and community media;
- Offer support and solidarity to whistleblowers;
- Building alliances between civil society bodies in all sectors to advance these objectives.
For more about the Right2Know Campaign, refer to www.r2k.org.za.