The New York based human rights group warns that the recently passed Protection of Information Bill will threaten free speech in South Africa.
On Tuesday, despite unprecedented opposition, the ANC-dominated parliament voted in favour of the Protection of State Information Bill.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said that the bill is a blow to freedom of expression and democratic accountability, and that Parliament should have heeded the calls of South African civil society, representatives of the media, and political opposition to postpone the vote.
Critics fear that the bill, which is meant to protect legitimate state secrets, may be used to instead hide instances of wrong-doing and corruption by the state or its officials.
The absence of a public interest defence clause in the bill means that journalists, whistleblowers and others could be imprisoned for up to 25 years for leaking or sharing information which exposes corruption, mismanagement or malfeasance deemed classified by the government – even in the face of a compelling public interest.
“The manner in which the government pushed this bill through Parliament, instead of proceeding with consultations as promised, as well as the secrecy embedded in this legislation, send very worrying signs about the government’s commitment to transparency,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Opposition parties, unions and civil society groups have vowed to fight to bill all the way to the Constitutional Court.