Academics this week backed the university’s opposition of the Protection of State Information Bill and its threat to academic freedom.

The university issued a statement backing Higher Education South Africa (HESA) urging the National Council of Provinces to reject the bill in its current form.

HESA noted much opposition has centred on the implications for the media.

The secrecy bill, as it is commonly known, was approved by the National Assembly in November last year.

The bill is still to be be debated before the National Council of Provinces.

It will announce its decision in April. If approved by the NCOP, the Bill will be passed into law.

Dr Mehita Iqani, a lecturer in the Wits media studies department, said:

“As the HESA statement rightly points out, the secrecy bill could also introduce very troubling constraints on academic freedom. It could discourage academics and students from researching certain issues of governance, policy making, service delivery and more.”

“It could close the door on research into corruption. The bill takes away the power of academia to act as another watchdog on political power.”

HESA said academics could face imprisonment for dealing with classified information even if that information is in the public interest.

“This will inevitably have a chilling effect on academic freedom,” the statement says.

One of the specific examples HESA uses is research in the field of law, which details how the bill would make research into court proceedings and critiques of court judgments “impossible”.

Prof Natania Locke of the Wits School of Law said the bill would make research in the field problematic:

“As an academic, all aspects of our daily working lives depend on the ability to speak our minds freely and to critically enquire into the fields that directly concern our disciplines,” said Locke.

“It is what we do, especially as legal academics.” According to Janeske Botes, an associate lecturer and PhD student in media studies,”academics will be affected as their research interests could clash with the bill.

“So crucial academic research which can have important ramifications on civil society will be blocked.”

“The media will not be able to inform the public of this, so we see a cycle of information suppression developing,” said Botes.

The HESA statement concludes with an acknowledgement that there is “information that should be kept secret to protect national security” but stresses that the bill, as it stands, will restrict the process of knowledge generation and place academic freedoms in jeopardy.