In an interesting judgment delivered earlier this month (Director-General v Haufiku), the Supreme Court of Namibia restated some common-sense principles about the relationship between freedom of speech, national security, and judicial injunctions. The facts in Haufiku were straightforward: The Patriot, a Namibian newspaper, had uncovered some information about potential corruption within the Namibia Central Intelligence Service [“NCIS”]. It appeared that the NCIS had purchased farms and houses using public funds, which was then given over to a private association of ex-NCIS employees. When The Patriot’s journalist wrote to the Director of the NCIS with queries about these purchases, he was informed that his questions fell within the scope of “sensitive matters and/or classified information” (para 11). Under the terms of the Namibian Protection of Information Act [“PIA”] (whose provisions are strikingly similar to our Official Secrets Act) and the Central Intelligence Services Act [“CISA”], not only was the NCIS not obliged to provide information, but also, possession and publication of such information was an offence. Accordingly, the NCIS subsequently approached the courts for an interdict that would prevent The Patriot from publishing what information it did have.
The State’s Arguments
It was argued before the courts that the information in The Patriot‘s hands violated the PIA, as it related to a “prohibited place” and/or a “security matter.” In particular, it was argued that “if the information were published, it would threaten or jeopardise the national security of the State” (para 18), “any disclosure of information which showed either the capability or a lack of resources on the part of the NCIS is unlawful as it undermines the effectiveness of the institution and with that posed a security vulnerability to the State of Namibia” (para 19) When asked to substantiate this argument, the NCIS argued that it was not obliged to do so, because the Courts did not have any jurisdiction to assess national security questions on their merits (paras 37 and 44 – 48). In short, the NCIS made a rather meta argument: the information that The Patriot wanted to publish impacted national security, but how it did so could not be revealed (inter alia, because that itself would be tantamount to impacting national security). As the Court characterised the submission:
- The NCIS is the sole determiner of whether or not there is a threat to national security from the disclosure of information by a member of the public and not even the courts may inquire into that;
- The NCIS is not obliged (in fact it is prohibited not) to place evidence before court in court proceedings to justify its conclusion that publication will be harmful to national security;
- All the NCIS needs to do in court proceedings aimed at supressing publication of ‘secret’ information- be it about its assets or anyone associated with it – is to assign it the label of national security and to assert that publication will compromise national security and the court is bound in law to grant an interdict prohibiting publication;
- The NCIS is under no obligation to reply to any enquiry by the media or to comment on any matter relating to or concerning the NCIS, even if it involves an allegation of a crime such as corruption. (paragraph 50)
(Readers who followed the Attorney-General for India’s arguments during the Rafale review petition will recall that this was more or less exactly the same argument advanced by the State in that case.)
The Court’s Analysis
The Court began by making the sharp observation that “the written submissions refer altogether to a staggering 50 cases a significant number of which are pre-independence cases decided under the pre-independence securocratic ethos which conjure up images of our painful colonial past.” (paragraph 43) (N.B.: “securocratic ethos” is a brilliantly evocative phrase to describe one of the fundamentals of colonial regimes all over the world!) Moving on from that, it then observed that, as a matter of legal burdens, because the NCIS was the body that was seeking the injunction (instead of a situation where, for example, the journalists were seeking disclosure), the onus was upon it to demonstrate what right was being interfered with. For this, “the mere assertion of a reasonable apprehension or fear of interference would not suffice. The facts supporting the apprehension must be set out in the application to make it possible for the court to make an assessment itself whether the fears are well grounded.” (paragraph 62)
Crucially, the Court then went on to note that this basic legal requirement – of establishing facts – did not go to sleep in a sand-box just because the State was invoking national security. As the Court made clear:
It needs to be made clear as a preliminary matter that we do not agree with the Government’s refrain, repeatedly pressed with great force in the written heads of argument, that once the Executive invoked secrecy and national security, the court is rendered powerless and must, without more, suppress publication by way of interdict.
The notion that matters of national security are beyond curial scrutiny is not consonant with the values of an open and democratic society based on the rule of law and legality. That is not to suggest that secrecy has no place in the affairs of a democratic State. If a proper case is made out for protection of secret governmental information, the courts will be duty bound to suppress publication. (paragraphs 84 – 85).
In the instance case, the Court found that neither with respect to the Association, and nor with respect to the properties that it had purchased, had the NCIS made any kind of case – or submitted any kind of evidence – to demonstrate national security concerns. For example:
…the information about the properties is not inherently secret (such as a military installation, equipment, password etc.), making it obvious to anyone who possessed it, even inadvertently, that it concerned or was a matter of national security. What is in issue are a house and a farm which are readily accessible to the public – without any indication that secret government operations were being carried on there as contemplated in s 23 of the NCISA. (para 102)
For these reasons, the Court denied the claim for injunction.
While at first blush, the Supreme Court’s judgment seems to be doing nothing more than recapitulating well-settled principles of law, there are a few reasons why, nonetheless, it is an important judgment in a comparative context. The first is that notwithstanding how well-settled these principles are, they come under repeated challenge from State authorities. As I mentioned earlier in this essay, readers will recall that the Attorney-General’s arguments in Rafale went along precisely these lines: the Court was asked to adopt a hands-off approach towards the fresh documents on national security grounds; when it was pointed out to the AG (by the Chief Justice) that under evidence law, all that mattered was a document’s relevance, and not how it had been obtained, the AG asked the Court to carve out a special exception to this rule for “national security” matters (a request that the Court fortunately declined). The AG also declined to justify his arguments, again on the basis that the moment “national security” was invoked, the Court had to back off. This is precisely the kind of “securocratic ethos” that the Namibian Supreme Court decried, and which is simply inconsistent with the principles of an open, liberal-democratic society.
The second important point is that the Namibian Supreme Court also made clear that invoking national security did not exempt the State from having to prove its case in the normal manner. While some necessary leeway could be made – such as having an in-camera proceeding while adjudicating the State’s claims (or sealed covers?) – the legal standard would remain the same. Invoking “national security”, therefore, would not cloak the State with some special kind of immunity; when it came to an injunction and the suppression of speech, the normal standards would apply. This, of course, has been the teaching of a number of Courts ever since the Pentagon Papers case (even if the Namibian Supreme Court’s judgment did not quite rise to that level, and had perhaps some unnecessary observations about hypothetical cases where it would grant injunctions). It is also important, because even if a Court does not except that it is divested of jurisdiction to adjudicate such cases, a highly deferential standard towards the State effectively achieves the same outcome. What is needed, therefore, is a shift from the “securocratic ethos” – where the invocation of national security is given a presumptive deference that is not extended to other claims – to the “constitutional ethos” where, ultimately, what is supreme is the Constitution, and constitutional values (including those of free speech).
It is in that sense that the Namibian Supreme Court’s judgment represents an important step forward in the global struggle against the permament entrenchment of the “securocratic ethos”, and towards an open society.