The people of South Africa recently united to watch a turning point in their country’s democratic history — the passing of the Protection of Information Bill by Parliament — perhaps the gravest offence the democracy has seen in all its seventeen years.
Those of us opposing the bill dubbed it “Black Tuesday”, wearing black in protest and encouraging others to join us in the hopes that the MPs would wake up to the fact that their duty was to vote in the best interests of the people, not to benefit themselves or their back pockets. Many turned to what is widely perceived as the most powerful online platform: Facebook.
Not only is Facebook a way for people to share their lives and maintain relationships, but it’s also become a way for people to rally around a particular cause.
In recent years, journalists and news corporations have recognised the role that Facebook plays in people’s everyday lives and have jumped on to the social media bandwagon, publishing their findings online to expose them further and create public engagement.
If the Constitutional Court, however, passes the Protection of Information Bill for President Jacob Zuma to sign into law, journalists won’t be able to publish their findings on Facebook freely any more.
When we create a Facebook account, we agree to the terms and conditions which state that all information posted and shared on the platform is our own. Regardless of the fact that you give Facebook the right to access it, you have sole responsibility for it. This means that if you publish something on the platform which contradicts the Protection of Information Bill you can personally be convicted for it.
The new and improved Facebook privacy settings mean you will be able to cover your tracks to some extent. You can, for instance, make sure that only your friends can see the information you share and you can create pages or private Facebook groups in order to discuss issues amongst a group of people. This becomes dangerous, however, as pages are public (when found) and intruders can make their way into groups. Again, if your Facebook friends decide to “share” an update or post, the information will no longer fall under the protection of the original privacy settings and can be traced back to them.
You can shout as much as you like about the Secrecy Bill on the platform but if you act against it you will suffer for your actions. Facebook’s safety settings require that every profile on Facebook be created by a traceable individual. This protects it and limits the controversy which surrounds it.
Another social platform has, however, come up with a solution for cases like South Africa’s: Wikileaks. In the media spotlight recently for exposing secrets from within the United States Pentagon, this platform has proven itself to be a reliable publication for anonymous whistle blowers. The whistleblowing site states its beliefs in an open letter:
We believe that free societies everywhere are best served by journalism that holds governments and corporations to account. We assert that the right to publish is equal to, and the consequence of, the citizen’s right to know. While we believe in personal privacy and accept a need for confidentiality, we hold that the disclosure in the public interest is paramount. Liberty, accountability and true democratic choice can only be guaranteed by rigorous scrutiny… The primary duty of journalists everywhere is to advance the cause of understanding, not to assist governments and powerful interests in suppressing information, and never to ingrained habits of secrecy.
Journalists wishing to publish the classified information they’ve come across will be able to do so anonymously through Wikileaks. Committed to protecting personal information and acting purely as a platform which exposes all truths, Wikileaks will undoubtedly become a source of information which South Africans avidly follow and use as a means of exposing the truth without facing a prison sentence of up to 25 years — a terrifying prospect to the bravest of South Africans and, ironically, a sentence almost as long as the one Nelson Mandela served.
If the Protection of Information Bill is passed, South Africa will have an uncertain future and citizens will simply have to find other ways in which to carry out the rights which so many fought for during the Apartheid years: The right to live in a free and fair country which is based on equality and transparency.
You can, however, be sure of one thing: If the Bill is passed it’ll be incredibly difficult to enforce on social media platforms where privacy settings are looked after and anonymity is granted when promoting truthful and ethical journalism.