The right to know versus the need to know

The controversy surrounding investigative journalist Jacques Pauw’s book raises serious questions as to whether the public ought to know certain information, even if their right to know is recognised, writes WESLEY SEALE

Silence. This is what Viktor Frankl’s captors in Auschwitz got if they did not expressly ask him for something. The Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor had made the rule during his time in the concentration camp. When asked a question, he would answer truthfully but never would he volunteer information.

Frankl, in his bestseller, Man’s search for meaning, writes that when asked about his age, he gave it. When questioned about his profession, he simply said “doctor” but did not elaborate. He goes on to write that in the process of the delineation of detainees, he realised that in a matter of minutes fate had passed him in different forms. This fate depended deeply on the data provided by detainees to their captors.

Often in reading about the experiences of Holocaust survivors, or of anyone who has survived a concentration or war camp, one would understand this deciding role that information played. Whether truthful or not, information could determine one’s fate, as was the case for Frankl and his fellow inmates in the camp. Information determined one’s own security or of those around you.

In recent times, especially with the rapid evolution of information technology, our generation has been faced with some important ethical questions on issues of human rights. We know and understand that not all rights are inalienable while they may well be inherent. There is clearly a hierarchy in human rights and some rights can and must be subverted for the common good.

In particular in African societies, which take on a more communitarian understanding of life, the rights of the community have been emphasised over those, maybe, of the rights of the individual. While this has often caused a tension, between liberal democracy, where the inalienable rights of the individual must be safeguarded at times and are supreme, on the one hand, and the rights of the community, on the other, South Africans have moved well into a dispensation where ‘rights-talk’, as some scholars would articulate it, dominates the discourse.

At the same time, with the development of technology, our generation, not only in South Africa, has had to ask some difficult questions not only about human rights but also some normative questions on rights. Just because we are able to do something and have the freedom to do it does not necessarily mean that we ought to do it.

The most evident example in this instance is the community’s right and freedom of taking someone’s life through the death penalty. Decades ago, communities believed that if one infringed on the rights of the community that in some serious cases, the state had the right to take that person’s life. Yet whether the state had the ability and even freedom to do it, did not mean that the state ought to have done it.

The normative questions, of whether the state or the individual then ought to do it, leads to the natural progression of the twin nature of rights and responsibilities. When one or the community enjoys a right that individual and community must also ensure that the necessary implementation that accompanies the enactment or fulfillment of those rights. In fact, often sometimes some rights need to be forfeited in order for the responsibility of other rights to be realised.

In the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, right political commentator and alleged sexual assailant, Bill O’Reilly, for example, was to describe this American tragedy as the price to pay for freedom. Occasionally people had to die, contested O’Reilly, in order for Americans to enjoy a greater freedom, especially the freedom to bear arms. Again, we may suggest, the fact that one has the right to bear arms is different from whether one ought to be bear arms. The Texas church attack will make Americans ask this question even more.

In the era of Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning and the case of Edward Snowden, democracies across the globe have had to engage about the rights to information, government secrecy, and state surveillance systems. Citizens across the globe have debated the notion of whether their personal information, their movements and other information should be kept from public consumption.

States in western democracies have argued that tough surveillance and secrecy laws need to be enacted in order to protect greater freedoms. Citizens in these democracies, on the other hand, have argued that citizens must enjoy a certain amount of privacy, especially in relation to the state, in order to maintain these freedoms.

A month or so ago, South Africans woke up to the reality that a massive chunk of personal data had been exposed to cyber thieves and was sure to indicate their dissatisfaction that this personal information had to be released into the public realm. Yet does the state, or community, have the right to this information? Do South Africans enjoy the right to certain information, or like Frankel, be kept a secret? And if yes, does the state itself not have the right to keep some of its information secret, especially when it compromises our democracy?

Currently, South Africans are downloading, sharing and paying for the book by Jacques Pauw, The President’s Keepers: Those Who Keep Zuma in Power and out of Prison. The book is no more damning than any other book that has come out before on President Zuma. It could well be placed down up there with, for example, Adriaan Basson’s 2012 release of Zuma Exposed. The book, like a number of others before it, tries to confirm the narrative that Zuma is an ogre.

What makes this book different however is the frenzy that has accompanied it given its possible ‘banning’. A veteran journalist himself, Pauw’s colleagues have made sure to paint the book into the ‘banning’ narrative and has thus be seen not so much a shot up in sales for the book but a high demand for it.

At the same time, coming in an election year for the ANC, the book tries to throw as much mud at presidential hopeful Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Basson’s book was released in 2012, the year of the last ANC conference. It is, therefore, no surprise that Pauw’s book appears now, on the eve of another ANC conference.

Yet more than the fates of President Zuma and Dr. Dlamini-Zuma is at stake. The very foundations of our democracy are being brought into question given the challenge of whether South Africans ought to know of the alleged allegations made by Pauw in his book. The South African State Security Agency has gone to court asking that some parts or the complete book not be made available to the public. They argue that the information provided comprises some operatives working for the agency.

Long after Jacob Zuma is no longer president, South Africa will need to look back and ask itself if it was good to allow the book to go unchallenged. While many may well argue that the public has the right to know, it is imperative that we also ask ourselves whether the public ought to know. Yet the best way to answer the question of whether the public ought to know is to question the level of responsibility we are prepared to take with our right to know.

Viktor Frankl, after the war, is known to have advocated that the American statue of liberty be complimented with a statue of responsibility. For he once wrote: Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsible-ness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsible-ness.

Our media in South Africa has proven over the years to present half-truths and therefore one has to question their level of responsible-ness. What we have in South Africa today is not the freedom to know but rather an arbitrariness that governs through gossip and innuendo. We have over indulged in the part that Frankl calls negative: freedom. It is time that we become a bit more responsible as a nation, especially in how we, like Frankel in the concentration camp, handle information.

Seale Teaches Politics at Rhodes University. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at Beijing University in China 

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