Info bill stands over until next year
Cape Town - Work on the protection of information bill, that has provoked an outcry over its potential threat to media freedom, was on Thursday postponed until early next year.
Chairperson of the ad hoc parliamentary committee drafting the bill, Cecil Burgess, said members would reconvene in the second week of January to resolve remaining points of contention around its provisions on classifying information.
State law advisors would in the meanwhile continue work on harmonising the bill with the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) and other legislation.
At issue is which officials will be given the power to classify data, how to define national security as a criteria for withholding information and the penalties imposed on people who publish state secrets.
The current, sixth draft of the bill retains minimum sentences for contravening the act - a thorny legal issue in South Africa and a provision opposed by the opposition.
Steve Swart of the African Christian Democratic Party argued that mandatory minimum sentences should only be retained in the bill where it dealt with espionage.
But, as with national security, MPs are still not at one on how to define espionage, Dene Smuts of the Democratic Alliance said.
Swart said the committee had come a long way since July when the draft law drew comparisons with apartheid-era laws during sometimes heated public hearings and set the media and ruling party on a collision course.
Since then, he pointed out, the ANC had heeded calls to remove the nebulous notion of national interest as a justification for classification from the bill.
A provision that would have allowed the classification of commercial information was also binned. It had been criticised as a recipe for concealing corruption.
Swart said the further gains included an agreement that PAIA, with its aims of ensuring transparency, would "trump" the protection of information bill.
Without this, the bill would have watered down PAIA because of its status as later legislation.
"Otherwise this bill would have had serious implications for PAIA," he said.
"We have made good progress in harmonising PAIA, which protects the public and the media's right to information, with the information bill."
PAIA contains a so-called public interest override on withheld information, and linking the two laws will extend this to people seeking the release of information classified under the latter act.
But Swart also warned that a battle loomed as the opposition wanted this provision to be strengthened to protect journalists and whistle-blowers who sought to expose wrongdoing.
"We have a public interest override, but what we want is a public interest defence", which will allow media facing prison sentences for publishing secret information to argue that they had done so for the greater public good.
The ANC and State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele have been adamant that such a defence would not be written into the law, because it would amount to "shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted".
The lifespan of the committee expires on January 26 but Burgess said it could yet again be extended as the ANC did not intend to rush through the legislation.
"We are having a democratic process," he said.