HomeEditorial CommentEditor's memo: Act seeks to shield state from scrutiny

Editor’s memo: Act seeks to shield state from scrutiny

LAST week’s confirmation that ministers who leak cabinet deliberations to the media face arrest together with the offending journalists under the Official Secrets Act, a colonial relic, reopened debate on what constitutes public information.

The Official Secrets Act, promulgated in 1970, prohibits the disclosure of any information to an enemy, which prejudices the security and interests of Zimbabwe.
It is obvious that any state has a right to protect its interests and ensure safety of its citizens, but this
should not be used as a thick wall against public scrutiny.
What worries any serious observer is that there seems to be a tendency in Zimbabwe to promulgate laws which on paper may appear innocent, but the application proves to be a weapon used to trample the rights of the citizens who are supposed to be protected by the same legislation.
This is the same with the Official Secrets Act in Zimbabwe as there is no clear distinction between what constitutes a state secret and which information is in the public interest.
A journalist reporting on cabinet deliberations on, say a tender inappropriately awarded, faces a 20-year jail term together with the source of the information.
There is no threat to the country’s security or national interest in reporting on corruption, but because the law says the mere accessing of such information is illegal makes the moral burden to expose such delinquency impossible to ease.
It is thus important, in this information age, to strike a balance between what constitutes state secrets, prejudicial to the interests and security of the country and what the public should know.
The tragedy of Zimbabwe is that the authorities thrive on manipulating an information poor citizenry to avoid accountability, openness and responsiveness. This is one of the widest gaps in the country’s policy cycles as the public may not be aware of which policy has been debated and which has been thrown out so that they input on policy issues.
Zimbabweans may not be interested in knowing state secrets like which weapons and arms the country needs, but they would definitely want to know which company is providing the ammunition and for how much as it is paid for by the tax payers.
National security could be compromised through leaks, but plugging these holes is a delicate matter requiring a sober approach, not the knee-jerk response we have seen in Zimbabwe and it appears the country’s southern neighbours are learning the same emotional approach.
A Protection of Information Bill was recently introduced in the South African Parliament and it deals with the same issue of classification of information.
This Bill seeks to protect government information from enemies, but it has been criticised as being very wide in definition to the extent of shielding the public eye from looking into the operations of parastatals and how tenders are awarded.
Critics have also pointed out that South Africa, like Zimbabwe when it introduced the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 2002, is going where others are coming from as it would withhold information from the public.
Parallels were drawn with the United States Executive order which seeks to serve the same functions as the proposed law in SA, but is clear on issues including what constitutes national security.
In the US, information is classified by the National Archives while in SA, the intelligence service is expected to do it. In Zimbabwe any cabinet deliberations automatically qualify to be official secrets.

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