Secrecy: a poison to democracy

Posted on September 22, 2011


Secrets all too often leak into the public domain and get whispered from ear to ear. In the process they sometimes become distorted. But those in possession of such secrets can also use them to gain favours or protection — to blackmail and manipulate.

However, there are, I think, two kinds of secret: one that should be eradicated as vigorously as possible and the other which perhaps cannot — and certainly should not — be tampered with.

The second kind are our private secrets. We all have them, mundane as many may seem. Our personal identity numbers — the ubiquitous PIN — for credit, debit or whatever cards; the password to private thoughts inscribed on a computer or personal sexual preferences are matters that should, in most cases, concern only the individual or whichever consenting adults are involved.

The only time that the personal behaviour and activities of any individual becomes a matter for disclosure is when this has a bearing on wider society; when it is demonstrably in the public interest. So, for example, I oppose — and have opposed — the “outing” of gays and lesbians, a campaign conducted in the relatively liberal society of Britain. Because these are personal and private issues and it is up to the individuals concerned whether they remain confidential or not.

With few exceptions, the exposure of such “private secrets” is clearly not in the public interest. Malicious intent may be imputed and legal sanctions should follow.

However, there are cases where such “outing” is clearly justified. I think here of the case of the perhaps unfortunately named Rev Cannan Banana in Zimbabwe. Even if he had not been a predatory rapist and sexual abuser (he was a senior figure in Robert Mugabe’s regime and he forced himself on his bodyguard), he should have been “outed” because he was part of — and supported — a regime that had launched vicious homophobic attacks. To disclose such hypocrisy was clearly in the public interest.

He was one of those people in public or “high” office, who tend to be the major promoters, not just here but in almost every society, of the idea that certain matters should remain “confidential” “secret” or even “top secret”. This contradicts entirely the fact that politicians and the people they employ are our elected representatives and public servants — in other words individuals who are supposed to work for us and in our interests. They have no business in doing business behind our backs.

And nor do those who own and control the wealth and wherewithall in the private sector have any business in keeping secret from us their price fixing shananigans and other “commercial secrets” that often have wide-ranging and deleterious effects on the wider society.

Of course, there are times when immediate disclosure would not be appropriate. Take the example of the state of the nation address or the Budget. In order to be able to assess, analyse and report as accurately as possible about such matters, parliamentary journalists are given the relevant speeches and details in advance. They are then cloistered in a room to work on their reports that may only be released once the president or minister has delivered the address.

There are other examples too, of embargoes — and of them being broken. Depending on the seriousness of such breaches, there should be severe sanctions for those who break embargoes, provided the embargo is warranted. And embargoes should be lifted as soon as possible after a speech is completed, or a commercial or political deal is done. There should be none of the 30-year or 50-year rules that exist, for the most part, to protect the usually dubious reputations of politicians and their frequently nefarious dealings.

We have a Promotion of Access to Information Act — PAIA — in this country But it has proved extremely difficult to use. Yet it was supposed to exist for the benefit of the ordinary citizen, to enable all and any South Africans to delve behind the veils of secrecy.

These veils exist with a vengeance. They were put in place long before the Protection of State Information Bill was mooted — and despite the existence of PAIA. Politicians and bureaucrats at various levels continue to support the arguably unconstitutional blocking the free flow of information. The latest “Secrecy Bill” is merely an attempt to legitimise this and to batten down the hatches of secrecy even more securely.

We had a classic case in the past where a government minister and senior civil servants conspired to lie to the public via the media. They were caught out because minutes of a meeting in which their conspiracy was laid bare reached the public domain. But that a minister — our representative — and senior civil servants — our employees — had apparently no compunction to lie to the public, provides a good illustration of where official secrecy leads: to lies and duplicity. Such secrecy also creates an elite, bound together by their complicity. This, in turn, makes manipulation and — not to put too fine a point on it — blackmail, par for the course.

When a secret is leaked and reaches the public domain, it ceases to be a secret. How it is then dealt with by the media, depends on whether and how much detailed disclosure is in the obvious public interest. If a private secret is leaked with evident malicious intent, then the leaker and any medium publishing it should be liable for severe sanction. Equally, if detailed publication of information recklessly endangers life or limb, then legal sanctions should also apply.

The bottom line is that a society that supports transparency and open dealing is a healthier society than one that chooses the path of secrecy, however that is dressed up, be it in the garb of national interest or state security or whatever. There may be times when a particular, perhaps premature, disclosure does harm. But much greater harm — a virtual cancer in the body politic — exists when concessions are made to secrecy. There are some well-meaning people who say: Yes, we oppose secrecy, but some things perhaps justify secrecy. As far as I am concerned its like someone saying: I want to be just a little bit pregnant. If we wish to retain what democracy we have, and to expand it, then we need the most open and transparent society possible. Such a society cannot exist if the present Protection of State Information Bill becomes law.

Posted in: Commentary