Just say know! Groups rail against secrecy by-law
Civil society takes stand against by-law that bans media and public from crucial Durban council meetings
It was a dark day for free access to information.
That was the feeling of a coalition of civil society groups who this week launched an anti-gagging campaign, Black Wednesday, against the controversial by-law that has been approved by the City of Durban.
The by-law effectively bans the media and the public from attending some of its crucial meetings.
A total of 23 civil society organisations, which include the Active Citizens Movement (ACM), Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Dennis Hurley Centre and the Right2Know Campaign, launched the eThekwini Anti-Gagging and Black Wednesday Campaign in protest against the Rules of Order Amendment By-Law.
The by-law was adopted by the eThekwini municipality in December last year after the Democratic Alliance tried unsuccessfully to block it by pushing for another debate on the amendments before voting could be done.The city dismissed claims by the opposition and civil society organisations that the by-law was unconstitutional, saying Section 160 of the Constitution as well as Section 20 of the Municipal Systems Act provides clear guidelines for holding municipal meetings.
It also said that both pieces of legislation stipulated that a municipal committee or council must open their meeting to the public. However, the legislation further provides for certain meetings to be closed to the public subject to the nature of the issues being discussed.
Threat of legal action
The adoption of the by-law effectively means that the city may close some of its meetings to the public and the media if there might be a disclosure of:
• Confidential information regarding any person;
• Any investigation, report or internal audit that could be compromised by its public disclosure; and
• There may be disclosure of trade secrets of the municipality or financial, business, scientific or technical information which is likely to cause prejudice to the business or interests of the municipality.
Now the civil society groups and the opposition have threatened to challenge the by-law in court.On Wednesday, the coalition of civil society organisations said the amendments were contrary to the “right to freedom of expression and to receive information protected by the Constitution as well as the right to open and transparent meetings, as protected by the Local Government; Municipal Systems Act”.
They also described the amendments as a “violation of our rights as citizens and unconstitutional” and called for the amendments to be rescinded.
Not backing down
ACM spokeswoman Yaschica Padia said this was the beginning of a weekly Black Wednesday campaign until they receive a response from the municipality.
“We will be doing this protest every Wednesday until the municipality responds. Our court papers are being processed. But today is the start of our anti-gagging campaign. We believe that the municipality’s actions, by closing certain meetings to the public and the media, is preventing transparent governance. By closing their meetings, they are keeping the public uninformed and are doing a disservice to them.”
Zandile Nsibande, the organiser of the women’s league within Abahlali baseMjondolo, said: “We want to unite with all the organisations to oppose the eThekwini municipality by-law that is oppressing the people. The reason they don’t want the media to record some of their meetings is because they want to keep the truth out of the public.”Mvuso Ntombela, representing the hostel dwellers’ organisation Ubunye Bamahostela, likened the by-law to the highly controversial Secrecy Bill which aims to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information.
“We feel that the our municipality is excluding us from decision making through this by-law. As hostel dwellers we have a lot of issues which the municipality is not attending to. Now by adopting this secrecy law it means they will be taking sections about us but without us being there. We want to put a full stop on that.”
Other organisations in the coalition include the Durban Group of Amnesty International, Greenwood Park Ratepayers Association, South African Hindu Maha Sabha, South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, Ubunye Bamahostela, 1860 Legacy Foundation, South African Muslim Media Network and South African Informal Traders Forum.
The municipality didn’t respond to queries.