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CSOs on OGP Board Caution South Africa on Secrecy Bill

Source: freedominfo.org

Date: 15 December 2011

The civil society members of the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee Dec. 12 issued a statement critical of South Africa for its current efforts to pass a bill designed to protect government information that has been widely criticized as a “secrecy bill.”

A broad South African civil society coalition, the Right2Know Coalition, had urged the OGP leadership to object to the bill, which is nearing passage.  Critics called it inconsistent with South Africa’s participation, as a founding member, in the 50-nation effort designed to spawn greater transparency. (For previous FreedomInfo.org articles on the OGP, see here.)

All but one of the 9 civil society organizations represented on the OGP Steering Committee signed a letter urging the South African government to listen to the civil society concerns and explaining that passage would cast “a shadow” over South Africa’s participation in OGP.

Text of Letter                                       

The five paragraph letter states:

The Open Government Partnership – now endorsed by 50 countries around the world – was launched in September 2011 to promote greater openness and transparency between governments and their citizens.  South Africa is one of the founding member countries and was represented by President Zuma at the launch where he emphasized, “Open government in the South African case, is premised on our progressive and transformative Constitution which enshrines a Bill of Rights and the principles of open governance…We pride ourselves on having freedom of expression and media freedom that are enshrined in the Constitution.”

In this context, and as civil society members of the Steering Committee, we are concerned to receive a letter from the Right2Know coalition, a broad grouping of South African civil society organizations, regarding the Protection of State Information Bill. The coalition expresses concern that the bill compromises the progress that South African has made in guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms, including its pioneering right to information law.  We note that this concern has been widely expressed in many quarters, including by other governments serving on the Open Government Partnership steering committee.  We support the OGP Steering Committee’s commitment to a vigorous dialogue with the South African government.

We urge the South African government to take South African civil society’s concerns seriously and continue to dialogue with them in the interests of achieving final legislation that is embraced by all quarters in South Africa, including both government and civil society. We believe that engaging in a good faith dialogue with civil society will enhance trust and lead to a law that is broadly owned and reflects the high standards of open government.

Failure to amend the current bill to a point where there is broad agreement could hinder South Africa’s progress towards fulfilling the country’s Open Government Partnership commitments and could cast a shadow over South Africa’s leadership role in the OGP. It could also potentially undermine civil society engagement in the OGP if the government were to ignore what we believe to be the legitimate and well-founded concerns voiced by South African stakeholders.

The Open Government Partnership is built upon the unique foundation of governments standing shoulder to shoulder with civil society in an effort to push both sides towards more ambitious open government commitments. We acknowledge the efforts to date of both government and civil society in South Africa to improve and strengthen the Protection of State Information Bill. We hope that collaboration continues so that the final legislation reinforces the highest aspirations of both the Open Government Partnership and the South African people.

Signators

All but one of the civil society organizations on the Steering Committee signed the letter. Not signing was Anthony Richter, listed on the OGP site as representing the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a consortium of donors who provide the lion’s share of the OGP’s funding. TAI’s policy is not to sign advocacy letters or petitions. Richter, Associate Director of the Open Society Foundations, has signed the letter for OSF. 

Not unexpectedly, the eight countries represented on the OGP Steering Committee did not sign on.

The Steering Committee met Dec. 6 in Brazil and sources told FreedomInfo.org prior to the meeting that South Africa was on the agenda, which also featured a discussion on still unsettled OGP governance issues.  The OGP as a whole held a peer to peer working session Dec. 7-8, also in Brazil, but no statement on South Africa was issued at the time.

The statement was circulated Dec. 12 by Nathaniel Heller, of Global Integrity, who is affiliated with the partnership by virtue of running its networking operation. Heller signed the letter, as did  Tom Blanton, National Security Archive (United States); Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy, MKSS (India); Suneeta Kaimal, Revenue Watch Institute (Global); Warren Krafchik, International Budget Partnership (Global); Gladwell Otieno, Africa Center for Open Governance (Kenya); Juan Pardinas, IMCO (Mexico); Iara Pietricovsky de Oliveira, INESC (Brazil); and Rakesh Rajani, Twaweza (East Africa)

Murmurs at Meeting

David Sazaki, who works for the Omidyar Network and attended the meeting in Brazil, blogged that “there was much murmuring, but little frank discussion, about a recently passed “secrecy bill” in South Africa and a similar proposed bill in Indonesia — both members of the OGP steering committee.” His post praises the OGP, about which he had previously been skeptical.

He wrote (in part):

In hindsight, my initial analysis was off the mark. I pondered whether the partnership would be a “game changer or symbolic slogan” when, in fact, its aspirations and potential achievements are far more humble. The best analysis of what the OGP has achieved to date comes not from the OGP, which is severely limited in its staff and communication capacity, but from transparency analyst Owen Barder and his colleague Stephanie Majerowicz.

I believe that Barder and Majerowicz rightly diagnose OGP’s humble ambitions, despite its rather grandiose rhetoric. Essentially, it seems to me, the architects of the OGP want to create a club for pro-open government reformers to compete with one another in order to make the most significant and meaningful commitments toward transparency. So far it seems to have made some early wins. Last week the US joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative to bring it in line with the other OGP steering committee members (and giving Hillary Clinton ammunition to criticize China). Now, write Barder and Majerowicz, the UK is feeling pressure to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative after the US joined in September. Representatives from the Brazilian government, meanwhile, have claimed that its membership in the OGP was a significant factor in finally getting a decent access to information law approved.

This sorta “my transparency is better than your transparency” friendly competition is precisely what the OGP hopes to encourage, but with much broader participation.