The Real Fear Factor: Secrecy as the Mask of Power

By Dale T. McKinley · 12 Apr 2011

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Secrecy has always been one of the most dangerous enemies of democracy. Any meaningful democracy, by its very nature, demands openness, transparency and accountability - these are the currencies of democratic freedom. On the other hand secrecy, as human history has so often shown, is the currency of authoritarianism (whatever the ideological variety), of social, economic and political control by those for whom the securing and maintenance of power is the ultimate goal. 

And yet, despite these foundational understandings and historical experiences, all indications point to the reality that in our contemporary South Africa (and indeed our world) secrecy is back in fashion with a vengeance. While secrecy’s ‘new’ look might appear different than those of the past – after all, power has regularly had to change its appearance precisely because of democratic struggles - the essence of what its mask is trying to hide has changed little.

As the WikiLeaks saga has so convincingly shown, there are few things that those in power - whether they are in the public or private sectors - fear more than for ordinary people to have access to the truth: the truth about how they spend (and earn) money; the truth about what they say and do behind closed doors and what they say and do in public; the truth about how decisions are made and who influences, and benefits from, those decisions; the truth about what we all simply don’t, but should, know.  

Because of this fear the powerful construct a multi-dimensional mask of denial, delegitimisation, diversion and destruction (most often in that order). As is the case with all attempts to keep things secret, the first act is one of denial – the information is simply untrue. When this doesn’t work the next step is to make every effort to delegitimise the information bearer and/or messenger – he/she/they are not trustworthy, have a ‘personal’ agenda or just don’t understand the complexities involved. If things have not been brought under control by this stage then diversionary measures are employed - the introduction of legislation/policy to ‘protect’ certain information, the punishment of whistle-blowers, cover-ups or emotive appeals to patriotism and loyalty. Failing all else, the information and sometimes even those deemed responsible for its exposure, are destroyed.

Our early 21st century conundrum is that the rapid advances in information technology, networking and dissemination have catalysed an equally rapid growth of this fear-induced, mask-making secrecy industry.  While there is now more information available than ever before (leaving aside the issue of the dominant character and content of that information as well as huge disparities in the ability to access it), there are also more secrets than ever before and thus the intensified desire/need, by those in power, to hide them. To take but one international example, according to a Washington Post investigation the number of new (government-induced) secrets in the USA rose 75% between 1996 and 2009 with the number of documents using those secrets exploding from 5,6 million to 54,6 million during the same period.  Similar, even if quantitatively less, indicators of the burgeoning secrecy industry are visible across the globe. Just ask the ordinary Zimbabwean, Chinese or British citizen. 

South Africa is no exception. Even if the introduction and subsequent use of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) since the early 2000s has provided tools in the ongoing battle for democratic openness, transparency and accountability, the responses by those in power has been largely to continually employ (and reinvent) their secrecy mask. Amongst the most prime examples, both from the public and private sectors have been:

- The iron curtain of secrecy around the contractual guarantees and agreements between the government, private contractors and FIFA for the 2010 World Cup;

- The cover-ups and continued obfuscation surrounding the late 1990s arms deal as well as the export/sale of arms to countries in conflict;

- The refusal to reveal how decisions around the granting of mining licenses are taken/ processed, who is involved and the measures taken to adhere to laws providing for community participation and benefit (e.g. Section 21 companies);

- The repeated and virulent opposition to reveal external funding sources of political parties alongside information on the relationships and activities of party-initiated and linked investment vehicles (e.g. the ANC’s Chancellor House Holdings);

- The continual blocking of attempts by workers to find out how private sector pension funds and surpluses are being used/invested, to access medical records related to long-term occupational diseases and to reveal the real remuneration of high-ranking executives;

- The merry-go-round use of legal action/appeals alongside nationalist propaganda to prevent the release of a range of government reports and assessments related to public service corruption, public-private partnerships, the sustenance and maintenance of public infrastructure, foreign policy interventions as well as the environmental impact of mega-projects;

- The wilful failure to secure and maintain proper record-keeping and information management systems, which fundamentally undermines the ability to access information;

- The deployment of coercive (‘security’ and ‘intelligence’) forces in both public and private sectors to smash, contain and/or intimidate those groups and individuals who more forcefully demand general transparency and accountability from those in power. 

- The unleashing of concerted campaigns of covert violence (e.g. murder and assassination), intimidation (e.g. direct physical and financial threats) and public smears (e.g. playing of the race, nationalist and personal morality cards) against whistle-blowers and political activists.

If this kind of record is not enough to convince the sceptics, then the completely misnamed ‘Protection of Information Bill’ (POIB) presently before Parliament should do the trick. The POIB is the lurking ‘jewel’ in the secrecy mask. It is a hugely dangerous and draconian piece of legislation which was (not surprisingly) initiated by the Ministry of Intelligence and which the ruling party seems intent on pushing through in record time regardless of sustained concern and opposition from a wide array of civil society and individual citizens. If successful, the Bill would, amongst other things: cast a massive veil of secrecy across the entire public sector (inclusive of all state institutions at every level of government, universities and parastatals) by giving a correspondingly wide range of officials the right to classify information as secret; criminalise those – including journalists - who expose and/or handle ‘secrets’ in the public interest, with prison sentences of up to 25 years; adopt a fox guarding the hens approach to oversight by giving all review powers to the Ministry of Safety and Security. 

As has been pointed out numerous times both here and abroad, those who are determined to construct and wear the secrecy mask cannot be the ones entrusted to be the overseers of openness and transparency in a democracy. It is not, as the authors of the POIB would have us believe, simply a matter of ‘balancing’ self-constructed notions of state/national security against the rights and freedoms of our democracy. Those rights and freedoms - which are not static but continuously fought and struggled for - are the foundational basis for our collective security both in the present and the future.

Earlier this year senior ANC politician Nkenke Kekana (also former chair of Parliament’s communications portfolio committee), whether intentionally or not, gave us a rare glimpse of the truth behind the secrecy mask when he candidly stated that, “there is too much information in the hands of citizens”. In more straight-forward terms then, if the powerful are fearful of what ordinary people know, they are fearful of democracy itself. Beware the mask.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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