Info Bill ‘threatens academic freedom’

2011-11-25 15:03

The Protection of State Information Bill threatens academic freedom and the ability of universities to perform their functions in a free society, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) Council said today.

The council said in a statement it acknowledged there was a need to replace the old apartheid secrecy legislation that was clearly not in line with the democratic Constitution.

“Council also acknowledges that lawmakers have listened to civil society voices in calls for a major revision of earlier versions of the bill, and also that some progress has been made in improving specific aspects.

“However, we believe that the bill, in its current form, conflicts with other basic tenets on the right to public access to information, notably, Sections 16 and 32 of the Constitution and the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) of 2000.”

In its current form, the bill failed to provide for a sufficiently strong and clear “public interests” defence clause in relation to information deemed as “classified”.

The expansive and open-ended manner in which classified information was defined in the bill was deeply problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, it shut out any critical scrutiny into what constituted national interests and national security.

The danger of this inscrutable use of classified information being used to place certain kinds of official practices beyond public scrutiny had most recently been seen, in an extreme form, in flagrant human rights abuses in the name of the so-called “war on terror” as occurring in many parts of the world.

Secondly, despite the bill’s contention that classified information could not be used for purposes of concealing unlawful, corrupt, and inept practices by state officials, there was nothing in the bill preventing this from taking place as the prerogative of determining if this was the case or not depended on state authorities.

As it stood, the bill would close off many state practices deemed as classified beyond the scrutiny of the public and raise the costs of whistle-blowing on administrative malpractice or corruption.

“It will limit the ability of the public, media, civil society, and universities to rationally debate what was in the public interests and what was not.

“We do not believe that such crucial decisions can only be left in the hands of state officials.”

The negative impact of the bill on access to information and freedom of speech posed a direct threat to the role of universities whose role was to speak truth to power.

“Council therefore calls upon Parliament to drastically review these limitations placed on access to information and freedom of speech as contained in the bill and bring the proposed legislation in line with the promise of our democratic Constitution,” it said.

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