In a crisis, the people most need their civil liberties, especially those liberties that relate to accessing information. During a disaster, the rights to free expression and freedom of the press are very important. The best antidote to ignorance is accurate and efficiently disseminated information.
Of course, governments could be the informant, but the government is made up of human beings just like society in general. These people can lie, they can act in the pursuit of selfish goals that harm others. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we the people have access to alternative sources of information during a crisis, so that we can evaluate risks for ourselves and also judge whether government actions are reasonable, rational and do not violate our liberties more than is strictly necessary to deal with the crisis at hand.
Government is in the process of limiting the liberties of South Africans due to the coronavirus pandemic. Under emergency regulations issued under the Disaster Management Act, establishments that serve alcohol and accommodate more than 50 people have been ordered to shut down or limit the number of their patrons to 50. South Africans should be able to question whether targeting alcohol specifically, instead of just banning gatherings of a hundred or more, helps slow the coronavirus or not. I will not pretend to have an answer to this, but I should be able to hear the perspectives of different experts on the matter.
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”Rahm Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff 2009-2010
Governments around the world are notorious for using crises to grow their own power at the expense of the liberty of the individual. The USA passed the Patriot Act (USA-Patriot Act, 2001) after the September 11 attacks, but some of the most controversial proposals were made by President Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It suggests the deep state or security bureaucracy was taking advantage of the opportunity created by terrorist attacks to grow their own power at the expense of everyone else.
This is a danger too in South Africa, especially, perhaps, given the dominance of one ruling party across all levels of government. We have a ruling party that has gradually been losing its support, and is therefore desperate to grab as much power as possible under whichever excuse offers itself. That instinct is not unique to our politicians; our institutions are just so weak that it is more likely to prevail.
At all times during this crisis, the government should be guided only by the science, and the only way we the people can ensure this, is through having access to all the opinions, evidence and arguments. We the people have a long-neglected role under our constitution. It is our job to evaluate the performance of legislators, and through them, the members of the executive. We hold the legislature accountable by expecting our representatives to defend our liberties against the executive arm of the state. It is a duty that requires us to have as much information as possible.
It is worrying that amid this crisis, signs are emerging that the government may be trying to centralise and control the dissemination of information about the virus. Reports from News24 indicate that several scientists (including experts in virology and epidemiology) have been instructed by the government to direct all requests for comment to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). If this is true, it means the government wants its version of how the virus is unfolding to be the only version of events. This is seriously worrying.
As if that were not enough, the regulations under the afore-mentioned Disaster Management Act, in section 11 subsection 5 of the regulations, severely restrict our freedom of speech. The measures proposed are not necessary anyway, if one assumes that the government which enjoys majority support among the population also has credibility among members of that population.
Section 11 of the regulations prohibits the dissemination of any statement with the intent to deceive any other person about:
- Covid-19 infection status of any person;
- Any measure taken by the government to address Covid-19.
Failure to adhere to these regulations will be punishable by a fine, six months imprisonment or both. Section 11(c) is of particular concern: false information is not helpful during a crisis if it causes mass panic, but this does not mean the government can limit our right to free expression. This applies, especially, to our right to review and criticise the government’s response to this disease.
The South African government seems to be centralising the flow of information about the disease through the institutions it controls. The universities and presumably institutions like the NRF and the CSIR will enable the government to enforce its censorship, while also making it illegal to deceive people about Covid-19 and government measures to contain the virus. This is a serious danger in that an individual could be arrested for contravening these regulations, with the public only having the government’s version of events as the truth.
Defeating a virus does not require suspending any of our natural rights. On the contrary, it requires giving back more of these rights to individuals, so they can best respond during a time of crisis. It does not mean making the government the only source of information. It does not require arbitrary alcohol regulations and putting the state in a position to decide what constitutes fake news.
In these uncertain times, protect your liberty by keeping yourself informed and acting on that information to keep yourself and others safe. Remember this warning by Thomas Jefferson.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, 1816